- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

RICHMOND — The Rev. Jerry Falwell is planning a seminar to train conservative pastors not to be intimidated by “left-wing thugs,” after being beset by civil-liberties groups questioning his ministry’s tax-exempt status as it backs President Bush.

The pastor’s weekly “Falwell Confidential” newsletter invites conservative clergy to a “Politics and the Pulpit” conference Sept. 26 to 29 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Mr. Falwell is Liberty’s founder and president.

“Because this is an election year and because of the controversy over the right of churches to be involved in moral and social issues, we will have constitutional attorneys there to explain to pastors what they may and may not do,” Mr Falwell said.

The Campaign Legal Center and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have said in complaints filed with federal agencies that Mr. Falwell improperly engaged in politics by endorsing Mr. Bush’s re-election in a newsletter published on his Web site, falwell.com.

Churches that go too far in advocating for or against a political party or candidate jeopardize their Internal Revenue Service (IRS) religious tax exemption.

Mr. Falwell said he wants more evangelical ministers to stand up to liberals and civil libertarians who threaten such actions against them.

“Their purpose is to intimidate conservative churches with scare tactics,” Mr. Falwell said. “Once every four years, Americans United writes a letter to evangelical pastors telling them if they speak out in any way or distribute voter guides, their tax-exempt status will be in danger.”

Mr. Falwell said church leaders and pastors who attend the seminar will be taught that they can speak their minds on moral issues of the day and weigh in on politics as long as they don’t spend tax-exempt money doing it.

“We’re going to be careful not to break the law, but we are also going to be careful not to be intimidated by left-wing thugs, not to let them intimidate evangelical pastors into silence,” he said.

Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) in Washington, said Mr. Falwell is “interpreting the law as he wishes it was, not as it is.”

“Any pastor who would accept legal advice in this area from Jerry Falwell is playing with fire,” Mr. Boston said, noting that Mr. Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” television ministry in 1993 paid $50,000 in back taxes for improper political activity in 1986 and 1987.

A four-year IRS probe determined that the weekly broadcast ministry of Mr. Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church raised money for political purposes. Mr. Falwell agreed to pay the penalty as a condition of getting his religious tax exemption restored.

In his July 1 e-mail newsletter to about 350,000 pastors and Christian leaders, Mr. Falwell urged conservatives to vote for Mr. Bush and “flood Campaign for Working Families with financial help.” The Campaign for Working Families is run by Gary Bauer, a conservative activist who opposes abortion and homosexual “marriage.”

Last month, the Campaign Legal Center charged in a complaint to the Federal Election Commission that Mr. Falwell had violated a ban on nonprofit corporations doing political advocacy, and the AUSCS sent the IRS a letter accusing Mr. Falwell of abusing his tax-exempt status.

Mr. Falwell said AUSCS practices a double standard, pursuing conservative churches even though Democratic candidates regularly visit black congregations and rake in endorsements and cash.

Mr. Boston said his organization has filed complaints on about 50 churches for crossing the line into political advocacy since 1996, and about half of them had endorsed Democrats.

“Jerry Falwell drags in every great boogeyman he can think of to frighten pastors into giving him support,” Mr. Boston said.

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