David Barton Puts Churches at Risk

by Dan Quinn

David Barton, head of the Texas-based organization WallBuilders, argues that the Constitution doesn’t protect separation of church and state. That constitutional principle is just a myth, Barton says. And now he’s suggesting that pastors can promote partisan candidates in their churches.

Quoted by OneNewNow, a website (“Your Latest News from a Christian perspective”) operated by the far-right American Family Association, Barton says the Internal Revenue Service apparently has decided not to take action in the cases of pastors who have taken the deliberate step of endorsing partisan candidates from the pulpit. From the OneNewsNow article (which describes Barton as a “constitutional expert” even though his only college degree is in religious education):

Current law prohibits pastors from speaking on politics or endorsing a political candidate, but David Barton of WallBuilders says the IRS’s intimidation of removing a church’s tax exemption status is unconstitutional. Even though some pastors have intentionally crossed the line, Barton does not think the IRS wants to take them to court because it may lose.

“The IRS doesn’t have any interest in doing this because if they do, I believe they know they are going to lose. And if they lose, you have 370,000 pastors in America who suddenly find out that there’s no restriction on them,” Barton suggests.

Barton claims that the Constitution already protects churches from losing their tax exemption. The IRS and federal courts have said otherwise. The IRS addressed the issue in a letter in 2004. From that letter:

“[U]nder Federal law tax-exempt charitable organizations are prohibited from
endorsing any candidates, making donations to their campaigns, engaging in
fund-raising, distributing statements, or becoming 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).

The federal courts have upheld this prohibition on political campaign activity, most
recently in Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, 211 F.3d 137 (D.C. Cir. 2000). The courts
have held that it is not unconstitutional for the tax law to impose conditions, such as the political campaign prohibition, upon exemption from federal income tax.”

As the letter notes, the law doesn’t bar religious leaders from addressing issues of public policy or, speaking for themselves, from endorsing candidates. Such rights are guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution.

But that’s not good enough for people like Barton and right-wing pressure groups like the American Family Association. They are determined to drag churches and their congregations into partisan political campaigns. Apparently, they think pastors should risk their congregations’ donations in expensive court battles over partisan politics rather than use those funds to minister in their communities. The real mission of churches, Barton seems to believe, is politics!

Religious-right leaders and politicians hail Barton as an “expert” in the Constitution and even history. Yet the reality is that this former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party is a smooth-talking propaganda artist whose foolish advice is putting churches at risk.