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Politics | Activists are trying to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches involved in politics-conservative politics, that is

Issue: "Democrats are all smiles," Aug. 7, 2004

Church opponents often attack ecclesiastical immunity from taxation, and in this super-heated political year three areas of church vulnerability are becoming apparent:

Church stands on social issues: Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church in Helena, Mont., is in danger of losing its state property tax exemption after hosting an event to support a constitutional amendment defending marriage as between a man and a woman. Montanans for Families and Fairness, a coalition against the proposed amendment, filed the complaint. Some Roman Catholic churches have taken similar heat for their refusal to serve communion to pro-abortion politicians. U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) has suggested such a stance should cost the Roman Catholic Church its tax-exempt status.

Endorsements of candidates: Concerned that GOP efforts to mobilize evangelical churches could tilt the November election to President Bush, liberal groups are pointing to the IRS tax code that prohibits "participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, filed a complaint over the tax-free standing of Jerry Falwell Ministries after Rev. Falwell urged evangelicals and others to mobilize for President Bush.

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Although noting that an affiliated lobbying group, not his ministry, funds the newsletter and website, Rev. Falwell admits that he endorses President Bush from the pulpit: "I make it very clear, just like at most African-American churches and many liberal churches, that as a tax-paying citizen I vote," he told The New York Times. "And I tell people who I vote for."

Rev. Lynn told the Times his complaint is intended for a national audience: "I certainly hope that this sends a clear message that religious organizations have got to operate within federal tax laws restricting partisan politicking." Rev. Lynn's organization has filed no complaints against churches or ministers endorsing John Kerry.

Church businesses: Recently, county commissioners in Moscow, Idaho, revoked the tax-exempt status of Anselm House-headquarters of Christ Church and home to Canon Press-and part of the downtown property of church-affiliated New Saint Andrews College (NSA). Self-described "civic activists" Saundra Lund and Rosemary Huskey, who led community protests of Christ Church's annual history conference in February, instigated the vote. Central to their complaint is a recent book co-authored by Rev. Wilson-Southern Slavery: As It Was. The book's controversial defense of slavery as biblically viable brought accusations of racism and a desire among many residents to see his church brought low.

After attending the May hearing at which the county granted property tax exemption to Anselm House and the downtown property of NSA, Ms. Lund, Ms. Huskey, and attorney Mike Curley immediately began drafting a protest. The primary challenge involves the earning power of Canon Press, which publishes books by Rev. Wilson and others and grossed close to $1 million several years ago. "They are not not-for-profit," said Charles Nolan, a former member of Christ Church who now accuses Rev. Wilson of dishonesty and heresy. "The property tax exemption is there to assist organizations who give back to the community. In this instance, Christ Church not only isn't giving back, but it's making an enormous profit." The charge against the NSA building cites the operation of a commercial bakery. The Idaho state tax code grants tax-free status to a religious or educational organization's property provided the property is "exclusively" nonprofit. Rev. Wilson and the Christ Church elders plan to appeal the ruling. Should the appeal fail, Christ Church and NSA would owe roughly $12,000, but Rev. Wilson insists the battle is not about the money and says that if he wins, Christ Church will donate that amount to the community. Rev. Wilson says he is battling for a principle: "If you start paying tax, you acknowledge state sovereignty," he said. "You're saying they have authority over your church." -Mark Bergin is a WORLD intern

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