Falwell Cleared of FEC Violations

The Federal Election Commission has unanimously voted in favor of Jerry Falwell in a complaint that was filed against him by the Campaign Legal Center. The complaint said that he had violated election laws by endorsing President Bush because he is the head of a non-profit religious organization:

Falwell, founder of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and the defunct Moral Majority, told religious conservatives in his July 1, 2004, "Falwell Confidential" Internet newsletter that "voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush. The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable."

The Campaign Legal Center complained to the FEC that Falwell and two allied, tax-exempt nonprofit organizations broke election laws by explicitly advocating the election of a federal candidate.

However, Staver noted that Falwell founded Liberty Broadcasting Network, television station WTLU, the Liberty Channel cable network and two radio stations. He argued that Falwell did not relinquish editorial rights just because he is also a preacher.

Matt Staver, you may remember, is the attorney who came up with what I have called quite possibly the dumbest legal argument in American history when he went to the Supreme Court to get the Massachusetts gay marriage decision overturned because, he argued (presumably with a straight face), it denied Massachusetts a republican form of government as guaranteed in the Constitution. But on this one, I think he's right and I think the decision is correct. He is right when he says that Falwell does not give up his right to free speech every election cycle merely because he is a preacher. Falwell is also the owner of several media outlets and a syndicated columnist, which means he is also by any reasonable standard a member of the press. I still say that all such restrictions should be done away with and that preachers should be allowed to say whatever they want about an election. Let their congregations decide the limits of their political involvement, not the government.

More like this

A New York state court ruled today that gay couples must be allowed to marry in that state. Like the decision in Massachusetts, this decision is based upon the NY state constitution, not the U.S. Constitution, so it only is enforcable in that state. But it is still an enormously important ruling.…
... and not just in his closet, but in his CABINET! The Protestant Christian Right (and their allies) are wringing their collective hands and forecasting doom. Why? Because President-elect Barack Obama is including gay people in his administration and has vowed to work toward equality for all…
The Supreme Court today refused to hear a case asking them to overturn the Massachusetts State Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Now one might wonder why on earth someone would try to appeal a state supreme court decision based solely on provisions in that state's constitution to the US…
Agape Press reports on an ACLU lawsuit against Doniphan Elementary School in Missouri for opening mandatory school assemblies with Christian prayers. This is a really, really easy case where the school is absolutely certain to lose, but Liberty Counsel, a religious right legal group, has taken the…

Fine, let religious figures have the rights they are entitled to as human beings and citizens of this nation.

But let them also have the responsibilities and obligations that go with those rights: let them pay taxes like everybody else.

I agree with the above; I can't think of a good reason for religious organizations to maintain their myriad tax exemptions if they're going to have a free hand to participate in our political system.

Personally, I think the question of tax exemption is a separate issue from the question of whether a minister or religious organization should be allowed to endorse candidates or not. I recognize that the law only uses the withdrawal of the tax exemption as punishment, but I don't think one's position necessarily hinges on both questions exclusively. I think decent arguments can be made for eliminating the tax exemptions for churches entirely and I'd have no real problem with having that changed. What troubles me is any law requiring the government to parse the words of ministers speaking to their congregations, or to anyone else for that matter, to determine whether an endorsement has gone past de facto and into de jure. I'm all for separation of church and state in both directions, including not having the government decide what a minister can and cannot say to their congregation. It just makes me uneasy, especially given how vaguely the laws are written and how easy it is to abuse them. If it requires getting rid of tax exemptions for churches entirely to do that, I'm okay with that too. But either way, I'm just not comfortable with giving the government the authority to police the speech of ministers in the pulpit.

Is this horse dead yet?...
I have no problem with preachers telling their congregation who to vote for, it is the special privileges (i.e. tax-free status) that they get that should keep them out of politics. Remove the tax-free status and I have no problem with them saying anything they like.

By GeneralZod (not verified) on 19 Jul 2005 #permalink

Anyone who thinks ministers "keep out of politics" now is kidding themselves. There are a dozen different ways to give out de facto endorsements and they are used by followers of both parties on a daily basis during any campaign season. When the Christian Coalition puts out "voter informationg guides", those are de facto endorsements and everyone knows it. The same is true of the voter guides put out by their opposition at Americans United and People for the American Way, also tax exempt organizations. So the current laws do nothing to prevent what everyone knows is massive involvement in the political process or to prevent candidate endorsements. All it does is force the churches to jump through a few loopholes to insure technical compliance.
And the reality of the modern world is that an individual may well represent more than one organization. Falwell is minister of a church, yes, but he also owns media outlets, is a syndicated columnist, and controls political action committees that are not tax exempt. So when he says something in a newspaper column, or in a private email to his supporters, which set of rules applies in which circumstance? Every lobbyist knows how this game is played - you set up a non-profit under whose umbrella you can solicit funds, and a PAC under whose umbrella you can make political statements. So we have here a set of rules that are A) easy to get around, B) prone to abuse, and C) require that the government make vague determinations of intent and application regarding what a minister says to his followers. I see no good that can come of it and some bad; hence, the rules should be done away with. And if we also want to do away with the tax exemption for churches entirely as well, that's fine by me. But those are two separate issues.

If we remove restrictions on political endorsements for all tax exempt organizations (doing it for churches alone, as previous legislation attempted, would clearly be unconstitutional), then that raises serious campaign finance issues. I could donate big bucks to a non-profit organization (or church), and write it off tax-wise, even if that money went solely to political campaigning. I'm not really sure that gifts to political campaigns belong among the list of things which should be tax deductable. I don't like the idea of corporations writing off a huge chunk of taxes by spending scads of money to buy off politicians.