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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

“Toeing the Political Activism Line”: United States Constitution Amendment 1 - Kevin

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In one of the earliest inquisitions regarding the First Amendment, the Danbury Baptist Association appealed to President Thomas Jefferson for resolution to their complaint that their religious liberties were not observed by Connecticut as immutable rights. Jefferson, as a staunch believer that government in no way should be involved in religious matters, did not address the complaint specifically. In true political grace and style, Jefferson sidestepped the complaint in his reciprocal letter to the association and retorted that the First Amendment builds “a wall of separation between Church and State.” In his refusal to address the matter, Jefferson ensured that there was no appearance that the executive branch was facilitating the establishment of religion.

Since its ratification on December 15, 1791, the First Amendment has been challenged by a plethora of individuals and organizations. Contentious arguments regarding the First Amendment have included the involvement (or alleged involvement) of nonprofit organizations in political activities. These prohibited activities are not limited to certain nonprofit organizations. Occurrences can be found within the aggregate population of nonprofits regardless of their explicit missions as well as the type of service provision they are engaged. While many of the complaints that the Internal Revenue Service receives regarding alleged violations by respondent NPO’s are simply mistakes or “misunderstandings”, there are those that appear as if they were carefully planned activities that were meant as a nose thumbing to regulators and opposition. Among the names on the list of persons who seem to enjoy testing the boundaries of these regulations is Jerry Falwell.

Mention the name Jerry Falwell and you are guaranteed to receive a variety of responses from the audience. There are those that hold him in the highest regard and then there are those that hold a completely different opinion and unflattering assessment. Regardless, it was evident that before he died, Jerry Falwell used a variety of stages from which he enjoyed spreading the beliefs and messages of the Christian Right. From the pulpit of Thomas Road Baptist Church to the academic campus of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell was often the target of scrutiny by opponents who seemed to detest him and everything he stood for. One such group, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) has filed complaints with the IRS on multiple occasions alleging political activism violations by NPO’s. Among the complaints filed by AU are complaints that allege Jerry Falwell Ministries and Liberty University engaged in political activism as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. One such complaint filed by the AU on July 15, 2004 alleged that the Jerry Falwell Ministries had endorsed President Bush through its website. Consequently, the endorsement and a request to website visitors to make a monetary donation to a political cause were immediately removed.

On February 25, 2006, the New York Times reported that the Internal Revenue Service was seeking to revoke the exemptions of three charitable organizations. This action followed the investigation of eighty two complaints the IRS received concerning alleged political activities by nonprofit organizations. Of the complaints received, the IRS determined that seventy five percent had engaged in problematic political activities. The IRS also reported that forty seven of the complaints involved churches and that of those, thirty seven had merit. Mark W. Everson, internal revenue commissioner at the time of the report, explained that the IRS observed a “disturbing amount of political intervention in charities in the last election cycle." In an attempt to curb a forecasted increase of similar problems in upcoming elections, the agency published a resource for nonprofit organizations. The publication provided important information regarding what types of activities nonprofits organizations can participate.

Evidently, Falwell apples do not fall far from the tree. Since the death of Jerry Falwell, Jerry Falwell Jr. has taken the reins as Chancellor of Liberty University. The proclaimed fastest growing Christian Evangelical university in the world continues to be the subject of the watchful eye of the AU. And, just as his father did, Jerry Jr. appears to condone activities by the 501(c)(3) organization he leads which test the political activism boundaries.

So to no surprise, the AU sent a letter to the IRS on February 10, 2010, alleging that Liberty University had again violated Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3) by participating in political activities which demonstrated partisan favoritism. Among the allegations were complaints that editorials written and circulated to students in the university publication, the Liberty Champion, were meant to influence the student voters and therefore intervene in a political election. AU also alleged that by cancelling classes on election day and providing busing for students to the polling places, Liberty University engaged in political activism. In closing, the letter stated that Jerry Falwell Jr. vowed in another university publication to repeat the activities in future elections.

As the IRS has vowed to crack down on charitable organizations which violate the provisions of 501(c)(3), AU will continue to watch Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University closely, especially in the upcoming election year. Undoubtedly, Jerry Jr. will continue to precariously toe the line of political activism.

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