Thoughts of an American Centrist

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Followup: North Carolina Preacher who Expelled Kerry Voters Resigns

This past Saturday I had a post concerning a North Carolina church who excommunicated members for commission of the grave sin of voting for John Kerry.

WAYNESVILLE, N.C. - A Baptist preacher accused of running out nine congregants who refused to support President Bush resigned Tuesday.

"I am resigning with gratitude in my heart for all of you, particularly those of you who love me and my family," the Rev. Chan Chandler said during a meeting at East Waynesville Baptist Church.

Congregants of the 100-member church in western North Carolina have said Chandler endorsed Bush from the pulpit during last year’s presidential campaign and said that anyone who planned to vote for Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry needed to "repent or resign."

Apparently, the preacher at the church, Rev. Chan Chandler, was ill prepared for the media onslaught that descended upon his congregation when this story broke. After a very transparent "damage control" operation - which included inviting the expelled members back - failed, Rev. Chandler has decided to recuse himself from this fight by resigning. I don't blame him! A sudden plunge into the intense glare of the 24 hour news cycle cameras is enough to make anyone batty. Even our most experienced public figures, one like Tom DeLay who have dealt with the media for years, grow weary of constantly being in the spotlight. That being said, sympathy from me towards the good Reverend is hard to come by. Being cast out of your church as a sinner and heretic doesn't feel too good either, and I'd go so far as to say he got what he deserved.

Clarification on Tax Policy
In my last post I had a very spirited discussion in the comments section with The Iconic Midwest; a very straightforward, blunt, and highly insightful blogger. While we both agree that what the Pastor did was spiritually reprehensible, we had a debate about whether the church's actions merited any consequences from the government in the form of tax status.

The statute in questions was 501(3)(c), regarding tax exempt organizations. The passage in question:

"[the organization] may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate at all in campaign activity for or against political candidates."

I would argue that a Pastor commanding his congregation to vote for President Bush on pain of expulsion in the days before the election were a clear violation of this principle. But what about the cases that are not so clear? For example, is it a violation if a minister simply states on the pulpit that he is planning on voting for Candidate X for reasons Y and Z and merely recommends his congregants do the same? The clarifying notes that the IRS puts out would say "yes."

These organizations cannot endorse any candidates, make donations to their campaigns, engage in fund raising, distribute statements, or become involved in any other activities that may be beneficial or detrimental to any candidate. Even activities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria violate the political campaign prohibition of section 501(c)(3).

Whether an organization is engaging in prohibited political campaign activity depends upon all the facts and circumstances in each case. For example, organizations may sponsor debates or forums to educate voters. If the debate or forum shows a preference for or against a certain candidate, however, it becomes a prohibited activity.

Personally, I feel that this type of strictness is somewhat insane. However, I suppose it is written in such an unforgiving manner to reduce the number of loopholes (and, by consequence, areas of abuse) in the law. For example, though I don't believe that churches who have opinions about candidates should loose their tax-exempt status, I really do not want partisan booster clubs springing up around the country avoiding campaign finance laws merely because they maintain a nominal Sunday Service.

Here's the part that's really harsh on the members of a Church found to be in violation:

In addition, contributions to organizations that lose their section 501(c)(3) status because of political activities are not deductible by the donors for federal income tax purposes.

Suck.

The lesson here is: Ministers, if you want to endorse a particular candidate, talk about the issues and don't mention any names. Your congregants will know who you're talking about.


Free speech or campaign finance reform?
Reading this regulation at first made my blood boil with free-speech issues. However, I soon realized that no one is actually restricting these ministers' free speech. It is not illegal to endorse candidates from the pulpit. It is not illegal to boot members out of your congregation for voting against your preferences. It is merely in violation of the law if you participate in blatantly partisan actions, and then claim to be a non-partisan organization in order to obtain a tax benefit.

Let me draw a quick analogy. You may deduct the mortgage interest on you first home from your federal income taxes. If you own a second home, the mortgage interest from that residence is not tax deductible. Now, it is perfectly legal to go out an buy a ski condo. You only violate the law if you claim the interest paid on that condon on your taxes. Likewise, churches are tax exempt. Partisan campaign clubs are not tax exempt. A Church may become a partisan campaign club, but it is no longer tax exempt. That is what is happening here.

So the issue is with the law itself. If we have problems with the way the system works, we need to contact our Congress[wo]man and ask him/her to revise the law. However, mind what I have warned: if we allow tax-exempt organizations to become branches of a campaign, it is certain that there will be abuse. 2000 had its PAC's. 2004 had its 527's. Do we really want 2008 to have the 501(c)(3)'s? Even though the way the law is written is possibly too restrictive, it may be the lesser of two evils.

11 Comments:

  • Nice post. I just wanted to make it clear that my objections were based just on the recent expulsions only. If the pastor campaigned for Bush from the pulpit he obviously violated the tax code involved. The actual expulsions themselves would not.

    It must be said that the IRS has generally had a good common sense approach to such things. Black churches are not hounded because they invite Democratic candidates to speak (despite the protests from the National Review types), Catholic Churches can distribute informational guides that spell out who does or who doesn't represent the Catholic positions on social issues without fear of reprisal, etc. Hopefully this will not change in the future. If it does things could get really ugly.

    By Blogger The Iconic Midwesterner, at 12:03 PM  

  • Ah, I suppose that is a good way for genuine churches to avoid the restrictions of this law. "I'm not advising you on how to vote, but candidate X is against everything we stand for." Not exactly in the spirit of the law, but as I said before, the regulation is a bit too restrictive. Let's just hope the IRS doesn't get picky about it!

    By Blogger Jonathan C, at 1:07 PM  

  • The whole tax-exempt law for churches is dangerous water. Does anyone know if a church has ever lost their tax exempt status because of partisan activity? I'm not really sure it is partisan activity to endorse a candidate or even threaten to kick out congregants who vote "wrong." I think it should take more than just speech or internal action amongst the church members. It should take external action such as a church running a phone bank or donating money to a campaign or running an ad favoring one candidate (issue ads would be fine, I think).

    Anyway, as the North Carlonia case shows, this kind of deplorable action will most likely be remidied without the intervention of government.

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    -Alan
    www.yellowlineblog.com

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