- JUSTIN BERGMAN, Associated Press Writer
Friday, July 16, 2004
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) --
A religious watchdog group claims the Rev. Jerry Falwell has violated his church's tax-exempt status by endorsing President Bush and urging followers to donate to a conservative political action campaign.
The Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a complaint Thursday with the Internal Revenue Service seeking an investigation.
"We want to demonstrate that even the most wealthy and powerful television preachers are not above the law," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the organization.
In a newsletter sent to supporters July 1, Falwell wrote:
"For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush. This is why I am utilizing this column to urge you to support the Campaign for Working Families, which is headed by Gary Bauer. It is the organization that I believe can have the greatest impact in re-electing Mr. Bush to the Oval Office."
The e-mail appears on the Jerry Falwell Ministries Web site and includes a link to the contribution Web site for the Campaign for Working Families.
Falwell said Friday he was expressing his personal opinion, and that his Web site carried the newsletter as an "op-ed piece." He said he frequently voices his political opinion from the pulpit but always qualifies it as a statement from a private citizen.
"It's a gray area for some people," Falwell said. "They feel that a religious man should neither be for or against anybody, but in reality, most are, and the only times there are complaints is when the person is a conservative like myself."
Jerry Falwell Jr., Falwell's son and church attorney, said the ministries' Web site is registered and paid for by a tax-exempt organization Liberty Alliance, which is legally permitted to do some political lobbying.
In a document sent to officials at the Republican and Democratic national committees last month, the director of the IRS's exempt organizations division, Steven T. Miller, said religious leaders are strictly prohibited from politicking as spokespeople for the church.
"Leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official organization functions, including official church publications and functions," Miller wrote.
The IRS is prevented by law from commenting on pending cases or investigations, said spokesman Anthony Burke.
Falwell has been the subject of such complaints before. In 1993, his television ministry, the Old Time Gospel Hour, agreed to pay $50,000 in tax penalties for political activity in 1986 and 1987.