The First African Methodist Episcopal Church in south central Los Angeles may be headed for tax problems as a result of the rally held on Sunday for California Governor Gray Davis.
The group Americans United for Separation of Church and State says it has filed an official protest with the Internal Revenue Service, requesting a review of the church's tax-exempt status following a Sunday worship service that turned into a political rally for the governor. The rally featured the governor himself and perhaps the biggest Democratic heavyweight in the country: former President Bill Clinton. The former chief executive endorsed Davis from the pulpit of the church.
According to newspaper reports, Clinton encouraged those in the congregation to vote against the effort to recall Davis. "Don't do this. Don't shred your Constitution. Don't shred the fabric of government," Clinton said. "Don't tell people Californians are so impatient that they give somebody an employment contract and then tear it up in the middle because times are tough. This is the right thing to do, to beat this recall."
Following Clinton's lead, Davis said the recall election "threatens the very fabric of democracy." He continued, saying "[the recall] is not good for you, it is not good for California. I ask that you defeat it."
And even the church's pastor got in on the politicking, describing Davis as "our vital warrior" and saying "we are his posse."
Robert Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United, says he has studied what transpired in the church.
"I think it was pretty clear that this was a 'retain Gray Davis in office' rally -- and while that may be fine in some venues, it's not okay for a church," Boston says. "Non-profit organizations, including houses of worship, are not supposed to be involved in partisan politics."
According to federal law, churches and other organizations with a 501(c)3 tax-exempt status are barred from engaging in political activities on behalf of or against any candidate for public office. Boston says newspaper accounts of the rally are clear on the partisan nature of the event.
"They all agree on the fact that Clinton endorsed Davis, [and] that Davis himself appealed for votes," he says. "I think the appropriate thing to do here would be to turn this into the IRS and ask them to examine this church's tax-exempt status."
Americans United has often been criticized for seeming to target churches which support conservative points of view, while letting those churches that endorse Democrats go unchallenged. Boston denies that his organization is biased.
"We take this sort of think very seriously," he says. "Over the years, we've turned in a number of houses of worship for endorsing Republicans, Democrats, [or] third-party candidates. We do strive to be even-handed about it."
Boston says non-religious non-profit groups lose their tax-exempt status every year for engaging in partisan politicking -- "and the religious groups ought to be held to the same standard," he says.
Boston says the formal complaint will be filed on Tuesday at the latest.
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