“Screw campaign finance and IRS regs. Enlist your congregation in our crusade. Or you’re a terrorist”
G.W.B., June 31, 2004
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2004; Page A06
The Bush-Cheney reelection campaign has sent a detailed plan of action to religious volunteers across the country asking them to turn over church directories to the campaign, distribute issue guides in their churches and persuade their pastors to hold voter registration drives.
Campaign officials said the instructions are part of an accelerating effort to mobilize President Bush’s base of religious supporters. They said the suggested activities are intended to help churchgoers rally support for Bush without violating tax rules that prohibit churches from engaging in partisan activity.
“We strongly believe that our religious outreach program is well within the framework of the law,” said Terry Holt, spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign.
But tax experts said the campaign is walking a fine line between permissible activity by individual congregants and impermissible activity by congregations.
Supporters of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, charged that the Bush-Cheney campaign is luring churches into risking their tax status.
“I think it is sinful of them to encourage pastors and churches to engage in partisan political activity and run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status,” said Steve Rosenthal, chief executive officer of America Coming Together, a group working to defeat Bush.
The instruction sheet circulated by the Bush-Cheney campaign to religious volunteers lists 22 “duties” to be performed by specific dates. By July 31, for example, volunteers are to “send your Church Directory to your State Bush-Cheney ’04 Headquarters or give [it] to a BC04 Field Rep” and “Talk to your Pastor about holding a Citizenship Sunday and Voter Registration Drive.”
By Aug. 15, they are to “talk to your Church’s seniors or 20-30 something group about Bush/Cheney ’04” and “recruit 5 more people in your church to volunteer for the Bush Cheney campaign.”
By Sept. 17, they are to host at least two campaign-related potluck dinners with church members, and in October they are to “finish calling all Pro-Bush members of your church,” “finish distributing Voter Guides in your church” and place notices on church bulletin boards or in Sunday programs “about all Christian citizens needing to vote.”
The document was provided to The Washington Post by a Democrat. A spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service, Frank Keith, said, “It would be inappropriate for the IRS, based on a limited set of facts and circumstances, to render a judgment about whether the activities in this document would or would not endanger a church’s tax-exempt status.”
He pointed out, however, that the IRS on June 10 sent a strongly worded letter to both the Republican and Democratic national committees, reminding them that tax-exempt charitable groups “are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.”
That warning came one week after The Post and other news media reported on a Bush-Cheney campaign e-mail that sought to identify 1,600 “friendly congregations” in Pennsylvania where Bush supporters “might gather on a regular basis.”
The IRS letter noted that religious organizations are allowed to sponsor debates, distribute voter guides and conduct voter registration drives. But if those efforts show “a preference for or against a certain candidate or party . . . it becomes a prohibited activity,” the letter said.
Milton Cerny, a tax specialist in the Washington office of the law firm Caplin & Drysdale who formerly administered tax-exempt groups for the IRS, said there is nothing in the campaign instructions “that on its face clearly would violate” the law.
“But these activities, if conducted in concert with the church or church leadership, certainly could be construed by the IRS as the church engaging in partisan electioneering,” he said. “The devil is in the details.”
Rosemary E. Fei, a tax specialist at the San Francisco law firm of Silk, Adler & Colvin, said the campaign checklist “feels dangerous to me” not just because of what is in it, but because of what is not. “There’s no mention whatsoever that churches should be careful to remain nonpartisan,” she said.
Holt suggested such warnings are unnecessary. “Why would we warn one citizen about the boundaries of their political discussion with another citizen?” he said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company