Progressive Clergy Take on the Religious Right in Ohio

The following article by Frederick Clarkson is crossposted with permission from Talk to Action.

One of the major tactics in the political development of the Religious Right over the past few decades has been abuse of the IRS non-profit tax code which, simply put, proscribes electioneering by 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, including churches. Recently, the Alliance Defense Fund, the Scottsdale, AZ-based headquarters for the Religious Right’s strategic legal ininitiatives, has encouraged mass law breaking by Religious Right-aligned churches in the run up to the 2008 elections. Not content to have one church do it as a test case challenge to the constitutionality of the law, they want to get maximum political impact along the way. The main event will be high profile political sermons on September 28th preached in as many churches as they can get.

While Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other eagle- eyed monitors have promised to report any overt transgressions that come to their attention, Rev. Eric Williams, a minister in the mainline United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio will hold a press conference on September 8th, announcing a plan to get progressive clergy to preach about the importance of separation of church and state on Sunday, September 21st.The United Church News reports

In response to a plan announced by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund to initiate a legal test of IRS limits on electoral political speech by at least 50 pastors on Sept. 28, a UCC church in Columbus, Ohio, is calling for at least 10 times that number to preach on the value of church-state separation on the Sunday prior.

There will be a press conference to announce the campaign on Septebmer 8th in Columbus.

On Aug. 7, Williams sent a letter to clergy colleagues in Ohio, announcing a counter action. Williams is gathering supporters who will publicly ask the IRS to investigate the ADF, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based non-profit organization.”The promotion of tax fraud, particularly to houses of worship, is not a charitable endeavor,” Williams told United Church News. “We believe that the ADF should lose its tax-exempt status.”

With the support of the Rev. Robert Molsberry, the UCC’s Ohio Conference Minister, Williams is calling for a UCC-led nationwide group of 500 ecumenical, interfaith clergy to use their pulpits on Sept. 21 – one week in advance of the ADF’s action – to educate congregations nationwide on why church-state separation is important to ensuring religious liberty.

“I will not use the pulpit of my congregation to serve the interests of any candidate or political organization,” Williams said. “I will stand firm in faith for religious freedom.”

“I invite you to join me and many other partners in faith to stand firm against this latest attempt by ADF to cross the line and jeopardize the unique role and moral authority that leaders and communities of faith have exercised throughout the history of our nation,” Williams wrote to clergy colleagues “I invite you to preach on Sept. 21 about the freedoms that the laws and the Constitution of our nation provide to all leaders and communities of faith.”

In addition, on Sept. 8, Williams and an estimated 50 ecumenical, interfaith clergy will hold a press conference in Columbus where they will publicly sign a joint letter to the IRS to “express our concerns and request that the IRS immediately investigate ADF’s activities and seek injunctive relief to prohibit ADF from engaging in any further promotion of ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday.'”

As it happens, Williams was among the group of clergy who reported Ohio religious right leaders Rod Parsley and Russell Johnson and their respective churches to the IRS regarding apparent transgressions on behalf of then-GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell (now on the staff of the Family Research Council.)  

This was, as far as I know, an unprecedented act on the part of local ministers who took the prudent and necessary steps to see that the law was appropriately enforced. Parsely and Johnson’s overt partisanship cooled down considerably after that.

Whether the current effort will discourage any Religious Right churches bent on violating the law on September 28th remains to be seen. But it is nevertheless a worthwhile effort in response to the bogus persecution narrative of the Religious Right.

Williams said he believes it’s important that the UCC take a lead in educating the public about what churches can and can’t do with regards to electoral politics. He charges the ADF is teaching falsehoods about church-state separation by insinuating that religious leaders are somehow being “muzzled” from discussing political issues.”This is simply not true,” Williams said. “It is fitting and appropriate for clergy to discuss the political dimensions of moral, ethical and justice issues, even in the middle of an election campaign. But that is not the same thing as specifically telling parishioners who they should vote for and who they should vote against.”

Great stuff.

Finally, let’s remind ourselves what the IRS says about these things.

“…all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

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