Two weeks after I wrote about the North Carolina Republican Party's dubious effort to collect church membership directories, the IRS issued a report revealing that 37 of 47 churches investigated nationwide during the 2004 campaign were found to have participated in prohibited political activities.
According to the New York Times, "The infractions included distributing materials that encouraged people to vote for particular candidates and giving cash to campaigns."
And it's not just Republicans who were attempting to blur these constitutional lines. The Baltimore Sun reports that Del. Emmet Burns Jr., a democrat from Baltimore County, has received approximately $16,000 from churches since 2000. In all, over 100 churches in Maryland donated money to 40 candidates since 2000.
While there is no federal law preventing candidates from accepting the money, there are prohibitions against tax-exempt groups making contributions of this kind. So, naturally, Burns and some other politicians want the IRS to change the laws so that religious institutions can support candidates however they desire.
But IRS Commissioner Mark Everson says his agency is determined to stop the "staggering increase in money flowing into campaigns…." The agency's new education and enforcement guidelines state clearly, "...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."
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, believes the IRS is now committed to enforcement.
"It's no longer possible for critics to say the IRS is blind or toothless," Lynn says, "because this announcement is a pretty major indication that they are serious."And as Frederick Clarkson point out in Talk to Action, "this is certainly bad news for the Christian Right, which has encouraged churches to bend if not break the rules proscribing electoral activities by non-profit, tax-exempt groups."
"It's important for people of faith to be engaged in the political arena," Rev. Robert Chase, Director of Communication for the United Church of Christ notes, "but it is another thing altogether to use religious institutions to register only certain types of voters or support specific candidates for office. This endangers the historic separation of church and state, an important guarantor of democracy."
Let's hope the IRS takes the advice of Rev. Chase to heart and follows through. In these times when so many of our historical rights and freedoms are threatened, it's chilling to contemplate a further deterioration of the separation between church and state.