The Internal Revenue Service properly stripped tax breaks from a New York church that opposed candidate Bill Clinton in full-page newspaper advertisements during the 1992 campaign, a federal judge here ruled yesterday.
U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman decided that the IRS acted lawfully when it took away tax-exempt status from The Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y. He dismissed the church's claims that the IRS violated religious freedoms and engaged in selective prosecution.
Churches that claim exemption from taxation cannot take sides in an election campaign, the federal tax code states. The IRS concluded after a two-year investigation that the nondenominational Christian church had done just that and no longer was entitled to the exemption.
The case centered on a full-page advertisement that appeared in USA Today and the Washington Times four days before the 1992 general election. The advertisement said, "Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God's laws."
Among the policy positions attributed to Clinton by the advertisement were support for abortion on demand, homosexuality and the distribution of condoms to teenagers in public schools, Friedman wrote in his 22-page opinion.
"Christian Beware," the advertisement warned. "Do not put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments."
At the bottom of the advertisement was a notice informing readers that The Church at Pierce Creek and its pastor, Daniel J. Little, helped sponsor the campaign: "Tax-deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted."
The IRS notified the church three weeks later that it was beginning an inquiry. The church responded that the advertisement was a "warning to members of the body of Christ" and did not amount to participation in a political campaign.
In 1995, the IRS revoked the church's tax-exempt status, retroactive to January 1992. The church and its affiliated corporation, Branch Ministries Inc., challenged the decision in the federal lawsuit assigned to Friedman.
Friedman ruled that church attorneys had failed to show that the IRS unfairly targeted the church while overlooking similar behavior in other churches and synagogues. He said the advertisement differed significantly, for example, from churches offering their pulpits to political candidates.
To the church argument that losing its exemption would make it harder to raise money, Friedman said the church leadership had faced a choice. It could retain its tax-exempt status or engage in partisan political activity, the judge said, but it could not have it both ways.