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Leslie Kern and Eric Williams Help Launch Resistance to Church-State Breech

The following are remarks made by Leslie Kern and Rev. Eric Williams at the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio on September 8, 2008 as part of the announcement of formal legal complaints to the IRS against the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) for their organizing of the “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on September 28. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend yesterday and record these remarks, which I can now share with you.

September 28 is the day on which the ADF has encouraged leaders of religious organizations to specifically endorse or oppose political candidates for office — despite the agreements these organizations have entered into with the federal government in which they agreed to not meddle in elections in exchange for never having to pay a dime in federal taxes. The ADF and these renegade churches want to keep their tax-exempt status while breaking the promise they’ve made to stay out of a political system they refuse to pay into.

Leslie Kern began by introducing the primary goal of the day at hand:

Leslie Kern speaking on the ADF in Columbus Ohio on September 8 2008OK, let’s roll. My name is Leslie Kern. This press conference represents a legal confrontation of the Alliance Defence Fund (the national legal infrastructure of the religious right — approximately 40 lawyers on staff and 1200 lawyer volunteers nationwide). A confrontation by two constituencies, working in tandem — the clergy group that filed the IRS complaints against the World Harvest Chruch and the Fairfield Christian Church in 2006, and former IRS executives including a former Commissioner, a former IRS Director of the Office of Professional Responsibility, and a former IRS Director of Exempt Organizations.

And then Rev. Eric Williams explained the motivation for filing a formal complaint with the IRS:

Welcome. On May 5th of this year the Alliance Defense Fund sent me a letter, inviting me to preach on September 28. The ADF is calling the day “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” and on this day the ADF is encouraging me to commit tax abuse from that pulpit. I don’t accept this invitation.

In this letter the ADF advised me that “the sermon is intended to challenge the Internal Revenue Code’s restrictions by specifically opposing candidates for office whose political positions conflict with Scriptural truth. In so doing, it is our hope to recapture the rightful place of pastors and churches in American life.” I don’t trust this advice.

Contrary to its words of encouragement, I understand that the ADF hopes that many religious leaders will accept their invitation to preach in support of or in opposition to an electoral candidate, that many will be investigated by the IRS, that they will be found guilty of tax abuse, and their congregations will be fined, penalized or stripped of their tax exempt status under charities law.

As a result of its Pulpit Initiative the ADF is hoping to have many high-profile violations in hand in order to challenge the constitutionality of the Internal Revenue Code’s restrictions against religious and charitable organizations that are supporting and participating in electoral politics.

The ADF is hoping to restore the religious bully pulpit to electoral politics. We say no. Not with the support of our tax dollars!

The ADF is seeking to legislate its own particular brand of religious values and practices through the ballot box. We say no. Not at the expense of our religious liberties!

The ADF is attempting to tear down the wall that separates church and state. We say no. No, because that wall is the levy that guards our nation from the hurricanes of religious extremism. It is the fencerow that helps all citizens to become and remain, in words and actions, good neighbors to each other. It is that historic mile marker erected by our nation’s founders that guides faithful patriots of each new generation, who seek and secure for everyone our inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The rightful place of religious leaders and communities of faith in American life is not in electoral politics, not in misusing tax exempt dollars to support or discredit candidates, not in abusing the power of the pulpit to tell others who to vote for, not in distorting and misrepresenting the historic role of religion in public life, and not in undermining our religious liberties by replacing our nation’s democratic principles with their sectarian creeds.

Rev. Eric Williams speaking on the ADF in Columbus Ohio on September 8 2008Instead, the rightful place of our religious leaders, of all religious communities and charitable organizations, is out of the way of electoral politics and into our communities, our neighborhoods, our houses of worship, our homes — bringing help and healing, providing education and ecnouragement, advocating justice and opportunity, offering reconciliation and renewal, and celebrating faith and hope and certainly God’s love.

Now if you are interested in hearing a lively sermon on church and state, one that is completely non-partisan and entirely legal, one that raises up the historic role of faith and religion in democracy, then I invite you to join me and the members of North Church, here, on Sunday morning, September 21st at 10:30 AM. Or better yet, if you would like to hear your own faith leader’s thoughts, invite her or him to join the many clergy across the nation who have committed themselves to preach that weekend in support of separation of church and state.

We continue to gather names of clergy who will speak out on September 20th or 21st, and we are still inviting all people of faith or personal conviction to add their names to this letter of complaint to the IRS. Please email your name, title and date to ew4lk@columbus.rr.com.

The biggest threat to religious liberty in America, in American life today is not the government. The real threat comes from religious organizations like the ADF, acting through the government to impose their own creeds and codify their own practices into law or public policy.

Today I am one religious voice, and together we are many faithful voices, speaking out and asking our government to protect our liberties. Will you stand with us to say “no” to the ADF Pulpit Initiative, and will you sign with us this letter of complaint in order to preserve the separation of church and state, in order to secure the foundation of our democracy, and to protect the religious freedoms of every citizen?

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

If you would like to listen to these remarks as an audio podcast, click here.

There was more to this news conference than I have shared here, more than Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the Washington Post have included in their coverage. I promise to post more speeches, documents and evidence of ADF’s First-Amendment-Busting behavior tomorrow.

7 comments to Leslie Kern and Eric Williams Help Launch Resistance to Church-State Breech

  • Darebrit

    Now there is a man that I might call Christian! I might even be persuaded to seek out such a person 0n 09/21.

  • A. Chris Ian

    Interesting. It seems as though the good reverend has an agenda to advance and it’s not necessarily God’s agenda.

    Christians believe a relationship with God is a two way street. So rather than focusing on God’s love (the receiving side), perhaps Reverend Williams and his flock should focus on loving God (the giving side). You know, the part where Christians are to be Christ-like, meaning they keep God’s laws.

    As for the IRS, it seems to me that this law does violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – the clause that states government will not interfere with the affairs of the church.

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

  • Jim

    Every church is perfectly free to speak its mind on whatever it wants, including political races and candidates… so long as it is willing to pay taxes on its income, just like I have to do and you have to do. If a church wants to claim the privilege of not paying any income taxes, then it agrees not to meddle in elections to the government that it drains resources from but does not support.

    What churches want is to have their cake and eat it too.

  • A. Chris Ian

    Churches expect to be treated as any other not-for-profit organization. Nothing more, nothing less.

    It is interesting that not-for-profits such as Planned Parenthood (funded by taxpayer dollars) & NARAL can endorse candidates without fear of losing their tax exempt status. Why do churches operate under the threat of losing their exemption? Because the government has clearly violated the 3rd article of the 1st Amendment:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

    Reading the First Amendment, it makes no mention of churches’ exclusion from the political process – it does make mention of government being excluded from religion. So unless you’re willing to support all not-for-profits staying out of the political process without threat of losing their exemption, it seems to me that you tacitly endorse the rights of certain groups being infringed upon.

  • No, A. Chris Ian. You’ve got it wrong. Tax exempt non-profit organizations are ALL forbidden from endorsing candidates, whether they’re churches or not. It has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with churches claiming tax exempt status.

    Non-profits that do not claim tax exempt status are free to endorse candidates – and churches would be too, if they didn’t claim special exemption from paying taxes.

  • Elle

    Well, with the fiscal crisis that we face in this country, and with the fact that, our government is operating in the red, I think we should just rethink the whole idea of tax exempt status for chruches and religions.

    And as far as the role of religious leaders speaking out in the political sphere, well it does come down to the first amendment respecting the establishment of a state religion. Those leaders seek to establish a religious litmus test on who can or will serve in the government. They are seeking to establish their church as “kingmaker” for the federal government.
    If that is not establishing a defacto state religion, then what is?

  • A. Chris Ian

    J. Clifford,

    All 501(C) organizations hold a level of tax exemption – the difference is 501(C)3 contributions are tax exempt for the contributor as well. Lobby organizations fall under 501(C)4, where the contributions are NOT tax exempt for the contributor.

    Interestingly, organizations such as Planned Parenthood & NARAL have both (C)3 & (C)4 branches. Coincidentally, the IRS allows for transfer of funds from a (C)3 organization to an affiliated (C)4 under the premise that those monies cannot be used in a partisan manner. However, there is no obligation on a (C)4 organization to publically divulge its contributors – so it is quite possible (and highly likely) that (C)3 contributions are, in fact, used for political purposes. At the very least, these transfers are used to diffuse administrative costs, allowing the (C)4 more funds to advance their political views.

    Elle,

    Contrary to popular belief, social conservatives are quite capable of discerning information on their own. If someone is sitting in the pew listening to the message, do you not think she or he already holds a similar belief? If that is the case, there is no need for a so-called lithmus test in the first place.

    I will leave you with this – I live in a state to the west of Reverend Williams and I will likely vote for the Democratic candidate for my district. Why? Because, quite frankly, he holds traditional moral views. For that matter, the Democratic candidate in the neighboring district has the same views as well.

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