An unholy mix? Churches wrestle with free-speech rights vs. tax code restrictions

WILLMAR -- Willmar attorney John Burns spent the morning of Sept. 10 -- the Sunday before the primary election -- in his car, racing from one church to another.

WILLMAR -- Willmar attorney John Burns spent the morning of Sept. 10 -- the Sunday before the primary election -- in his car, racing from one church to another.

Burns was looking for political fliers left on cars in church parking lots.

He visited most of Willmar's churches that morning. At most of them, he found fliers distributed by Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, urging worshippers to vote in the DFL primary for Michael Cruze, Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson's opponent.

As the Nov. 7 general election approaches, Burns remains troubled by what he sees as an unholy mix of church and politics.

"I see politics very cynically exploiting religion in order to gain power or retain power," he said. "It's now being done nationwide, including in the local elections."


Wayne Cook, a Willmar pastor, is troubled too, but for different reasons.

"It's America. I think we should have the right to speak freely," he said.

Thus has a line been drawn.

Increasingly, churches -- and other nonprofits -- have become a flashpoint for debate over where advocacy ends and electioneering begins.

In August, Willmar's nonprofit community theater, The Barn, pulled a printed program because it contained a slogan to vote for Bonnie Wilhelm, the Republican candidate in Minnesota District 13B.

A Twin Cities church may face an Internal Revenue Service inquiry after one of its pastors publicly endorsed the GOP Sixth District congressional candidate, Michele Bachmann.

At issue: an IRS rule that bars tax-exempt organizations -- including churches -- from engaging, either directly or indirectly, in any kind of political activity for or against any candidate for elective office.

Nonprofits that violate the rule could face an IRS investigation. Sanctions could range from fines to outright loss of their tax-exempt status.


Burns believes it's a fair rule.

"We subsidize tax-exempt organizations," he said. "We pay higher taxes so they can pay no taxes. ... The one main thing that we ask in return is that they should not participate in partisan political activities."

The fliers handed out by MCCL in September crossed this line by promoting one candidate -- and by doing so on tax-exempt church property, he said. "It clearly advocates for and against."

Locally, Burns and Cook are among the most vocal on the issue. Cook spoke at a news conference in St. Paul last month, held by the Minnesota Family Council to protest what many churches see as intimidation.

Other clergy are wrestling with it too.

St. Mary's Catholic Church was among several Willmar churches where MCCL leaflets were distributed in September.

It wasn't the first time, said the Rev. Joe Steinbeisser, the parish's pastor.

"Every election year they do this. Two years ago I had to go out and talk to them," he said. "It's a concern because we have had some pro-life groups, more than just one, coming into the area and doing a full campaign blitz. Their efforts really try to promote one candidate versus another. That's where it becomes an issue for the church. The church does not advocate or promote or solicit its members to do that."


The debate has reached a new pitch, however, he said.

"It's become very difficult this year. This is the first year in 10 years as pastor that I've found it as challenging to discuss what is appropriate for churches and what isn't," he said.

The Rev. Steven Knutson, pastor at Vinje Lutheran Church, said the debate has become "unseemly."

"My sense is that a line of decency has been crossed," he said.

What, then, are churches to do?

To Burns, the answer is simple: Stick to the tax code.

"They're completely free to speak out on moral issues and to speak out in strong terms. They are in no way inhibited," he said. "But we don't expect the pastor to be out politicking and using a house of worship for politics."

Cook, who is pastor of the nondenominational Spirit and the Bride Fellowship, agrees churches shouldn't be politicking.


Few pastors try to politically influence their flock, he said.

"I wouldn't stand up in front of my church and tell them who to vote for. I don't know any other pastor here in town who would do that. I don't think we're in the business of telling people how to vote," he said.

What concerns Cook -- and other pastors -- is the larger issue at stake: the potential for undue restrictions on what clergy can and cannot say.

Churches have had a key role in history as the moral voice of society, Cook said.

"Do you water things down so that you don't touch those issues? Or do you, with God's help, try to communicate as passionately and compassionately as you can to try to give a God perspective?" he said.

"I think it is important for the church to speak on moral issues," said Vinje's Knutson. "There are certain principles that the Christian church gives witness to."

With the general election just two weeks away, Burns sent a letter to area pastors last week, reminding them of the IRS code and urging them to adopt a policy on political fliers on church property. He sent a similar letter last month.

"I believe that the churches do have an obligation to take action," he said.


Burns -- who said he appears to be the only local watchdog on churches and electioneering -- said the response has been mixed.

He received one thank-you note, but he also heard from clergy who saw it as an attempt to stifle them.

"I think pastors are for the most part reasonable people. They're up for discussion and debate on the issues," Cook said. "I think debate and discussion are good. Intimidation and threats are not good."

Burns said intimidation is not his goal.

"I've had an interest in this going back some years," he said. "I don't really want the United States to practice politics Iraqi-style, where the mullahs tell people how to vote. ... There are people who are trying to make this complex. It's not complex. It's simple and straightforward."

Steinbeisser of St. Mary's believes there's a middle ground that can be found.

"We as Catholics and moral human beings try to promote the appropriate laws and legislation that respect life and promote social concerns for the poor and elderly," he said.

"I do think it's important for people to exercise their right to vote and make a choice on what they believe in. Hopefully their faith guides them in making that choice and hopefully they do not feel pressured or influenced by others."


Said Knutson: "When I look out at my congregation, I see red pews and I see blue pews. I believe it is possible for Christians of good conscience to have a variety of opinions about political issues."

When the election is over, churches shouldn't be "one more place where we seek to polarize or have winners and losers," he said. "I would hope the church is one place we can come back to and all experience some healing."

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