Is it politics or is it "just spiritual advice?"

Discussion in 'Politics' started by Contessa_Sharra, Sep 22, 2008.


Is it politics or is it "just spiritual advice?"

  1. It is politics.

    3 vote(s)
  2. It is spiritual guidance.

    1 vote(s)
  3. It should be allowed.

    0 vote(s)
  4. Preachers who do this should be prosecuted.

    2 vote(s)
  5. Churches that endorse candidates should lose tax exempt status.

    2 vote(s)
  6. Preachers, by the very nature of their job, cannot "speak as private citizens."

    1 vote(s)
  7. I don't care.

    0 vote(s)
Multiple votes are allowed.
  1. Contessa_Sharra

    Contessa_Sharra Searcher for Accuracy

    Apr 27, 2008
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    Pastors’ Web Electioneering Attracts U.S. Reviews of Tax Exemptions
    There was a time when a minister like James David Manning could stand in the pulpit of his little church on 123rd Street in Harlem and say pretty much anything he liked about a presidential candidate. Beyond his community of devoted parishioners, who was to know?

    But when Pastor Manning, who is black, posted an angry sermon in February on the Web site of his church, the Atlah World Ministries, denouncing Senator Barack Obama as a “pimp” and Mr. Obama’s mother as a “trashy white woman,” his preaching spread like a virus on YouTube, earning lavish attention on right-wing talk shows — and two weeks ago, the less-welcome attention of a watchdog group, which filed a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service.

    The I.R.S., which can revoke the tax exemptions of churches that express support or opposition to candidates for public office, has declined to say whether it is reviewing Mr. Manning’s case. But in the past year, the agency has undertaken its first serious look at the digitized church world that his sermon represents, issuing a set of new guidelines that bar electioneering on the Web.

    Both partisan-minded religious groups and those that police the boundaries between church and state say the implications of that new scrutiny are great.

    Even as the increasing Web fluency of religious organizations has flung their doors wide to a new world of potential followers, it has also opened the gates for all to see what may have been intended only for the faithful in the pews. Now, I.R.S. investigators, as well as groups that monitor churches’ political activity, can do much of their work with a simple Google search, or a surfing of YouTube posts.

    This year, several cases of possible electioneering by clerics have come to the federal government’s attention because of Webcasting. During the Florida Republican primary campaign, a blogging tax lawyer blew the whistle on Bill Keller, a St. Petersburg televangelist who preached on his Web site that a vote for former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, a Mormon, was “a vote for Satan.” Mr. Keller has since confirmed that the I.R.S. is reviewing his church’s tax status.

    This month, Maury Davis, the pastor of a megachurch in Nashville, told his congregation that I.R.S. rules prohibited him from saying at the pulpit what he could say as a private citizen: that he supported three parishioners running for school board, whom he then named. His remarks, posted in a video on the church Web site, made it into the local newspaper, and the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a complaint with the revenue service.
    “What we are learning is that you can preach to the choir and say anything you want to people who think just like you do,” said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, an author and blogger who frequently explores the intersection of religion and new media, “or you can preach to the world and accept certain limits.”

    Some church officials are chafing at those limits. “The I.R.S. goes, and it’s scouring the Internet looking for trouble," said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for a conservative Christian group called the Alliance Defense Fund, which defends clergy members accused of partisan activities. “It is our contention that in church it is the pastor who should determine what is said, not the I.R.S.”

    The agency has long had the authority to revoke the tax-exempt status of religious and charitable groups — known as 501(c)(3) organizations under a law passed in 1954 — if they participate in “activities that favor or oppose one or more candidates for public office.”

    Typically, it does not initiate investigations but acts on complaints from individuals or groups like Americans United, which filed the complaint against Mr. Manning. Investigations can take years, in part because of the process of deposition-taking and verification, and in part, experts say, because of a sensitivity to the special role of religious freedom in the country’s history. Only a handful of churches have ever lost their tax exemptions, and then only temporarily.

    It is unclear whether the accessibility of evidence on the Internet will produce more or speedier investigations. So far this year, the rate of new cases the revenue agency has pursued roughly matches that in the campaign years of 2004 and 2006 — when there were about 100 annually, according to Nancy Mathis, an agency spokeswoman.

    But even though many churches and charity groups have had Web sites for years, the agency issued its first guidelines on the matter in June 2007. In a memo to enforcement officers posted on its Web site, which many tax-exempt groups monitor, the I.R.S. said that if “a 501 (c) (3) organization posts something on its Web site that favors or opposes a candidate for public office, the organization will be treated the same as if it distributed printed material, oral statements or broadcasts that favored or opposed a candidate.” Several clarifying guidelines were issued last month.

    Since the early 1990s, when the revenue service imposed severe penalties in several high-profile cases, including a two-year revocation of the tax exemption for Jerry Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour,” most religious organizations and clergy members have been careful to keep within the I.R.S. limits.

    To explain the latest changes, many religious groups have held online seminars, or Webinars. The liberal-leaning Interfaith Alliance, which favors strict enforcement of the rules on the principle that religion is compromised by involvement in partisan politics, has arranged conference calls for clergy members to discuss the new guidelines with I.R.S. officials.
    Ms. Mathis, the agency’s spokeswoman, declined to discuss its investigative techniques, but said that cases springing from Web sites had raised new issues. If a cleric appears on his or her church’s Web page endorsing or attacking a candidate, she said, that is clearly no different from a sermon in the pulpit.

    But links on the same page, to other sites connected directly or indirectly to partisan groups, are a more complicated matter. In one recent I.R.S. memo, the question is addressed with almost Talmudic intensity, urging enforcement agents to explore the issue of "electronic proximity — including the number of ‘clicks’ that separate the objectionable material from the 501(c)(3) organization’s Web site.”

    “What is so fascinating here is that the Internet is instantaneous, and the government is slow,” said Frances R. Hill, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law who specializes in nonprofit tax law. “Whether this will speed the government up in the use of its authority remains to be seen. Clearly, what church groups used to spend a lot of time and money doing with voter guides they can now do in a rapid, cost-free way.”
    Rush Limbaugh was among the first to highlight Mr. Manning’s attacks on Mr. Obama. On his nationally syndicated radio show on March 19, Mr. Limbaugh played extensive excerpts of a Feb. 16 sermon, first posted on the Web site of the Harlem church, which was by then drawing a large audience on YouTube. (To date, the 10-minute video has had 2.1 million “views.”)

    On the tape, the pastor said, “Obama is a long-legged mack daddy,” using a slang term for an accomplished street hustler. “I haven’t trashed Obama. His African-in-heat father went a-whoring after a trashy white woman. He was born trash.” Mr. Manning praised Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, the former president, for bringing economic vitality to Harlem, but called Mr. Obama the candidate of “irresponsibility and unaccountability.”

    Mr. Manning, a 1985 graduate of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan with a master’s degree in theology, did not respond to phone and e-mail messages left at his church.

    Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the complaint his group filed on Aug. 15 against Mr. Manning cited the videotaped sermon, in which he “clearly and unequivocally opposes a candidate for public office, and he does it standing at the pulpit of his church.”

    “We first saw it on YouTube, which is a kind of unorthodox first for us,” he added. While news accounts and complaints from individuals are the organization’s usual sources of information, Mr. Lynn said the Web would most likely become the dominant source.

    By most accounts, it is not difficult for clergy members to avoid violating the I.R.S. rules, which permit them to preach about issues that play heavily in political campaigns, like abortion or marriage or the evils of war. They can even anoint candidates — several prominent ministers have endorsed Mr. Obama and Senator John McCain — as long as it is not from the pulpit, and they make it clear they speak only for themselves.
    “It’s what I call the ‘wink-wink rule,’ ” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan group affiliated with Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “I’ve seen pastors say they were ‘speaking for themselves only’ while standing in the pulpit.”

    But some clerics view any restriction as an unbearable infringement of free speech. “I have every right to preach against anyone and anything that is anti-Biblical, and if they don’t like it that’s too bad,” said Wiley Drake, the pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif. Last year, Mr. Wiley called on his followers to say imprecatory prayers — pleas for misfortune or death — against Mr. Lynn because he had complained to the I.R.S. that Mr. Wiley had endorsed former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas in e-mail messages using his church’s letterhead.

    “Now, they are surveilling us with the Internet, and I say, enough is enough,” Mr. Drake said. “It’s time we reclaim our right to speak out.”
    In May, the Alliance Defense Fund invited clergy members around the country to challenge I.R.S. tax-exemption rules by preaching sermons on Sept. 28 — it coined the phrase “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” — “specifically opposing candidates for office whose political positions conflict with scriptural truth.”

    The Defense Fund is hoping to generate a constitutional test case of the 1954 law, and says about 25 ministers have agreed to participate.
    Mr. Stanley, the group’s senior legal counsel, said some of the sermons preached that day would undoubtedly be posted on church Web sites.
    “We will not tell them to do it, but if they do, so be it,” Mr. Stanley said. “We want the I.R.S. to come and look at these sermons.”

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