Monday, January 16, 2006

 

Pastors vs. Christocrats: Bring on the IRS [Updated]

For several years, Rev. Rod Parsley and his lapdog Russell Johnson have operated as the bullies in the religious school yard, twisting the arms of politicians, reporters and other religious leaders wouldn't fall in line with their narrow view of the world and God.

While the pols and scribes still cower, dozens of local pastors from mainstream churches yesterday decided they had had enough and called the bullies' bluff. The wonderful story is in the Dispatch and as you read the whole story you discover these pastors are serious and have hired at least one heavy-hitting expert to press their case:
More than 30 local pastors last night officially accused two evangelical megachurches of illegal political activities.

In a rare and potentially explosive action, the moderate ministers signed a complaint asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate World Harvest Church of Columbus and Fairfield Christian Church of Lancaster and determine if their tax-exempt status should be revoked.

The grievance claims that the Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church and the Rev. Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church improperly used their churches and affiliated entities — the Center for Moral Clarity, Ohio Restoration Project and Reformation Ohio — for partisan politics, including supporting the Republican gubernatorial candidacy of Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.

The complaint asks the IRS to seek a court injunction "if these churches’ flagrant political campaign activities do not cease immediately." It was signed by 31 pastors from nine denominations during a meeting last night at the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus and was to be faxed late last night to IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson.

"For me, it’s church and state, not church in state and I really feel there are some churches in central Ohio crossing that line," said Eric Williams, senior pastor of the host church. "The law allows church involvement in issues. This goes beyond issue-involvement to partisan politics and we’re simply asking the IRS to uphold the law."

Williams and the other signers stressed that they were acting individually and not on behalf of their congregations, whose affiliations include: The American Baptist Churches/USA; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Episcopal Church in the USA; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Judaism; the United Church of Christ; the United Methodist Church; Presbyterian Church, USA; and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The complaint makes three main allegations:

• That church-sponsored events conducted by Parsley and Johnson have showcased a single gubernatorial candidate — Blackwell.

• That Parsley and Johnson have launched a "partisan-oriented" voter-registration campaign "with the goal of registering 400,000 voters to support Blackwell’s candidacy."

• That Parsley and Johnson have been behind efforts to distribute "biased voter education" materials aimed at solidifying voter support for Blackwell.

. . .

John Green, a University of Akron authority on religion and politics, said the complaint is extraordinary because it was filed by pastors rather than watchdog groups that routinely monitor church and state issues.

"This complaint is detailed and complex enough that I think the IRS is going to say, ‘We better look into this,’ " said Green, author of Religion and the Culture Wars.

. . .

Marcus Owens, a Washington, D.C., tax attorney and director of the IRS tax-exempt division from 1990 to 2000, said that IRS investigations of churches typically involve theft, but examinations of churches for playing politics are becoming more common.

Owens, who helped the clergy draft the IRS petition, said they had extensively documented the alleged political activities of Parsley and Johnson and their affiliated organizations.

"You have a number of churches and charities involved with a number of road trips for Mr. Blackwell, all of which seem to be aimed at gaining him visibility for his political campaign," Owens said.

Blackwell, who often carries a Bible to GOP events, has actively courted Christian right voters and became a champion for many of them by leading the successful campaign to ban same-sex marriages through a ballot issue in the November 2004 election.

The complaint cites nine instances when Blackwell was featured at events by the churches or their entities. During an October gathering at the Ohio Statehouse orchestrated by Reformation Ohio and led by Parsley, the televangelist called upon supporters of his $38.5 milliona-year church and affiliated operations to sign up 400,000 voters statewide. Blackwell shared the dais with Parsley.

"Man your battle stations," Parsley commanded attendees, who had been bused Downtown from his World Harvest Church. "Ready your weapons. Lock and load. Let the reformation begin."

The University of Akron’s Green said the "most problematic allegation" in the IRS complaint involves preferential treatment accorded Blackwell by Parsley, Johnson and their affiliated organizations.

Marci A. Hamilton, a professor of constitutional law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City and an expert on the separation of church and state, said she was surprised by the pastors’ complaint.

"There are very few instances where anybody’s ever been turned in on this," she said. "Even though the laws are on the books, it’s rare that the law is enforced."

During the last 15 years or so, Hamilton added, churches have had "a tacit agreement" to look the other way and not criticize each other for political activities. But, she said, that appears to be changing as televangelists and conservative evangelical churches flex their muscles in the political arena.

"Those who have been in favor of separation of church and state have been pretty quiet, and it may be because they couldn’t get hold of the microphone. The agenda has been set by the religious right for so long."
[Update] The NYT story on the pastors is here.

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