Texas pastors' briefings legal, IRS rules

WASHINGTON (BP)--The Internal Revenue Service has decided a series of 2006 pastors conferences on moral issues did not violate the non-profit tax status of the sponsoring organization.

Meeting during a gubernatorial election year, the Texas-based Niemoller Foundation held six briefings in the state in which pastors were urged to inform their members on moral issues and to encourage them to participate in the political process. Among the speakers were Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican running for re-election at the time, and other politicians.

The Internal Revenue Service found "no political intervention or attempts to influence [legislation] was proved," so Niemoller will maintain its 501 (c) (3) status under the tax code, the IRS said in a document sent to the foundation May 4. The IRS issued the ruling in response to a complaint filed by the Texas Freedom Network.

"This liberal attempt to intimidate pastors has backfired," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of the Liberty Legal Institute, which seeks to defend religious freedom and other First Amendment rights and represented the Niemoller Foundation. "There is now a clear IRS statement outlining these pastors' events and approving them as valid under the law."

Appeals were given at the meetings for pastors "to vote and to request their members to register and vote but in each instance observed they were told to vote their values," IRS said. The speeches reviewed by IRS "did not appear to be political intervention" and there was no effort "to sway anyone on any issues," the agency reported. Although voter registration drives were held in conjunctions with the conferences, there was no evidence in the material provided that efforts were made to endorse candidates or affect legislation, according to the IRS.

In a January 2008 letter to the Internal Revenue Service, the Texas Freedom Network said its evidence appeared to show Niemoller "may have engaged in knowingly funding partisan electioneering activities" in support of Perry's re-election. The effort, known as the Texas Restoration Project, "appears to have served as a partisan voter-mobilization tool" for the Perry campaign, according to TFN. Pastors involved in the project were "encouraged to use their churches as partisan, political extensions of that campaign," the Texas Freedom Network charged.

The IRS decision will "further embolden wealthy special interests who funnel campaign money through nonprofits that want to drag churches into partisan campaigns," Texas Freedom Network spokesman Dan Quinn said, according to The Dallas Morning News.

The Niemoller Foundation received a large portion of its funding, according to federal tax information, from four of Perry's supporters, The Morning News reported.

Niemoller Foundation director Laurence White said the organization educates churches "on moral issues facing our society" and seeks to motivate them to be involved in the political process.

"The IRS has unequivocally affirmed the right of pastors nationwide to come together as spokesmen for the Word of God, to interact with political leaders, historians and scholars in discussing the moral issues under debate within our culture and to assert their Biblical responsibility to address such issues from their pulpits," said White, pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Houston.


Compiled by the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.

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