A fight is erupting this election season between conservative churches and liberal watchdog groups that are going to the IRS and accusing ministers of violating the law if they speak out about political issues and candidates.
“Right now, it’s very one-sided,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative legal-action group.
He said the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) — led by the Rev. Barry W. Lynn — has been “very aggressive” in going after churches “that are conservative in their leanings.” But AU has “looked the other way,” with a few exceptions, when it comes to more liberal-leaning churches, Mr. Sekulow said.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell calls it a “scare tactic” designed to prevent evangelical ministers from mobilizing millions of Christians behind President Bush. Mr. Falwell is fighting back by holding a seminar next month to educate pastors on their right to speak freely.
“We have no intention of being intimidated by these left-wing thugs,” he said.
AU and the Campaign Legal Center last month filed complaints against Mr. Falwell with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The groups accused the pioneer of television evangelism of using his tax-exempt Falwell Ministries to send out an e-mail and post a Web site message endorsing Mr. Bush for president and encouraging donations to a Republican group.
Mr. Lynn says AU simply is committed to “keeping churches out of partisanship,” and he strongly rejects the idea that his group is partisan or biased.
“Our whole project started with a complaint against Jesse Jackson in 1988, and it continues to be completely nonpartisan,” he said.
Under a 1954 law, churches and other tax-exempt organizations can lose that tax status if they engage in overt political activities, including endorsing or opposing candidates.
Mr. Lynn’s group filed another complaint with the IRS last month against the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, of the First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark. It cited a July 4 sermon in which, among other things, Mr. Floyd complained that Mr. Bush got 4 million fewer votes from evangelical Christians in 2000 than the previous Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, did in 1996.
In May, AU filed an IRS complaint against the Catholic diocese of Colorado Springs because its bishop wrote a letter to parishioners saying Catholics should not vote for candidates who are in favor or abortion rights, stem-cell research or euthanasia.
AU also complained in April that the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston had endorsed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry from the pulpit, calling the Massachusetts senator “the next president.”
Since 1996, AU’s complaints against churches have claimed 25 Republican-related violations and 19 Democrat-related violations, an AU official said. The rest were third-party or nonpartisan.
But others say the effort is skewed.
“Barry Lynn is using this  law to threaten conservative and Catholic churches. That’s what this is all about,” said Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican.
Mr. Jones is the author of legislation to allow all religious leaders to speak out on politics and even endorse candidates from the pulpit if they choose.
Mr. Falwell, like Mr. Jones, said he doesn’t mind when Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, or Mr. Kerry visit liberal-leaning churches, especially in black neighborhoods, and sometimes speak from the pulpit to drum up support for Democrats.
“But what is good for the liberal goose is good for the conservative gander,” Mr. Falwell said.
For his part, Mr. Floyd said he did not endorse Mr. Bush in the July 4 sermon, but simply talked about where the two presidential candidates stand and about moral issues such as abortion and same-sex “marriage.”
Mr. Floyd said he thinks he was targeted by AU for speaking out strongly against homosexual “marriage,” and that Mr. Lynn wants “to shut us up.”
It won’t work, the Baptist pastor said.
“They’re trying to get the church to be silent, but the church … all across this nation is beginning to stand up,” Mr. Floyd said.
During the Democratic National Convention, a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago endorsed Mr. Kerry in a live address to delegates via satellite as he stood in his sanctuary with other congregants.
“We want to get that cowboy out of the White House,” Jim Montgomery told the Democratic delegates, arguing that America’s respect around the world has been “severely impaired by the Bush administration,” its policies and “the lies, the deceit, the duplicities.”
Mr. Lynn said his group takes all reported violations seriously and is looking into that incident to determine whether it amounted to a church endorsement of Mr. Kerry, even though Mr. Montgomery is not Trinity’s minister.
If the IRS has begun investigations based on any of his recent complaints, Mr. Lynn said, he doesn’t know because the agency keeps that information secret.
Pastors should not take any tax tips from Mr. Falwell, Mr. Lynn said. In 1993, he noted, Mr. Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” was ordered to pay $50,000 in back taxes and had its tax exemption retroactively revoked for 1986 and 1987.
“I would no more take tax advice from him than I would have taken it from Al Capone,” Mr. Lynn said. “He is trying to lure churches into a false sense of security about their own misconduct.”
Mr. Falwell dismissed that example, noting the case involved a show, not a church.
Tension between AU and conservative churches erupts every election year, Mr. Sekulow said, but this year it started months earlier, largely because of a closely divided electorate.
His group, ACLJ, received so many calls from concerned pastors wondering what they can do this election season that it posted a guide for religious leaders on its Web site.