Jarrett’s partisan pulpit speech may have violated IRS church-state rules

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

Valerie Jarrett’s partisan speech at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church may have violated the IRS tax rules for churches’ political activities, said a prominent free speech attorney.

“It is problematic under current regulations,” said Erik Stanley, a senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, which is campaigning to roll back IRS curbs on believers’ speech.

But if the IRS concludes that the church violated the IRS code, the ADF “will represent the church, just as it would represent any church for what is said from the pulpit,” he said.

“We believe in pulpit freedom,” he said.

On Sunday President Barack Obama’s controversial aide, Valerie Jarrett, used the Ebenezer pulpit to tell the congregation that the jobs of teachers, police and firefighters “are now in jeopardy because Congress — well, let me be specific — because [of] the Republicans in Congress.”

Jarrett is a longtime aide to Obama, and worked with him in Chicago. She’s deeply unpopular among White House staff, but remains influential with the president.

Shortly after the religious service, the church hosted a voter registration drive for its mostly African-American congregation. In 2008, more than 95 percent of African-Americans voted for Obama. His 2012 campaign managers are now funding registration drives and other efforts to repeat that level of support this November.

This church’s hosting of partisan statements and technically non-partisan activities threatens its tax-exempt status, according to rules posted on the IRS’ website.

“Voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention,” according to the IRS website.

The IRS has suspended the tax-exempt status of 501(c)3 churches and religious organizations following verified episodes where their officials have violated the IRS’ rules. On each occasion, the organization had to pay expensive legal fees and annual taxes to the IRS for the period when their tax-free status was suspended.

The church’s pastor, Rev. Raphael Warnock, also used the same service to criticize former House Speaker Next Gingrich, whose own criticism of federal welfare policies has recently sparked angry complaints by Democrats. “Mr. Gingrich, let there be welfare reform, and let it begin with you,” said Warnock, who donated $250 to Obama’s 2012 campaign in May 2011.

After the service, Warnock told a CBS News reporter that Gingrich “is counting on the old logic of scapegoating and race-baiting” to help him win the GOP primary race in southern states.

The full video or text of Jarrett’s and Warnock’s sermons are not available.

The tone at the church event was political, according to Will Frampton, the CBS TV reporter who attended the event. “There were times during the service when it really felt like a political rally, perhaps even an early campaign stop, as much as it was a church service,” he hold his viewers Sunday night.

However, the IRS’ enforcement of its rules are skewed, said Stanley.

‘The IRS’ record of enforcement against churches has been atrocious, uneven, discriminatory and arbitrary,” he said. “Usually more liberal churches and more African-American churches have been [engaged in political activities] for years… whether it is legal or not,” said Stanley, who wants to persuade the Supreme Court to invalidate IRS curbs on clerics’ speech.

In 2010 the IRS halted investigations of churches’ suspect activities following a court’s declaration that IRS investigation procedures violated a 1984 religious freedom law.

The IRS is drafting new procedures, but likely won’t implement them until after the 2012 election, Stanley said.

The ADF is trying to defend free speech by religious figures, whether liberal or conservative, pro-Republicans or pro-Democratic, he said.

“The IRS has no business sticking its nose into any church… What we’re talking about here is the freedom of the church to be engaged in the cultural and social processes, like elections,” Stanley said.

Follow Neil on Twitter