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Reverend Tommy Barnett couldn't have made it easier for his congregation to donate big bucks toward the fight against abortion in Arizona.
After complaining during an October 25 sermon about the "underfunded" campaign of Proposition 110--the antiabortion measure--Barnett took up an offering as parishioners filed out of his Phoenix First Assembly of God Church on North Cave Creek Road. The flock shelled out nearly $5,000, which Barnett says he promptly gave to Citizens for Proposition 110, the group behind the November 3 initiative to ban most abortions in Arizona.
But because Barnett failed to collect the names or other pertinent information about the donors--as required by state campaign finance law--the Secretary of State's Office says the campaign will probably have to give the money back.
For religious organizations to maintain tax-exempt status, the IRS generally prohibits them from engaging in heavy-handed political activity. Although Barnett says he hasn't collected money for a specific candidate, the church hasn't been shy about dabbling in politics. "For years there's been a feeling that the church shouldn't take a role," Barnett tells New Times. "I feel that we should get involved."
But Joe Thomas, a local IRS official who oversees tax-exempt organizations, says the church may be crossing the line.
"If you're a charitable or religious organization, you're prohibited from political activity," Thomas says, adding that there must be a "pattern of advocacy" for a political issue or candidate before the IRS would consider an audit.
Barnett's Proposition 110 fund raiser is one in a series of gestures carrying political overtones. During an August service, literature for Doug Wead, a District 6 Republican Congressional candidate, was displayed in the lobby of the church. Last spring First Assembly's associate pastor Leo Godzich led the opposition to Phoenix's gay-rights ordinance. The church has a political action committee, which Barnett says exists to "gather information" on issues, not to raise money. Thomas says courts have yet to rule directly on how far a church can go. "It's a gray area," he says. Campaign finance laws, on the other hand, aren't as fuzzy. To accept the donation from First Assembly, Citizens for Proposition 110 must give a detailed accounting of the source.
The law requires organizations to keep records of each donor's name, address, profession and employer. Organizations must disclose that information in cases where donors give more than once or more than $25. "There simply are no anonymous contributions in Arizona campaign law," says Sam Vagenas, assistant secretary of state.
Without the names, Vagenas says, the money must either be given back to the church or turned over to a charity.
Citizens for Proposition 110 did not return repeated telephone calls from New Times last week. In an interview, Barnett says he's "never done anything like this."
A newspaper ad promoting Barnett's October 25 sermon featured photographs of the three candidates and carried the headline, "The man I want for President." Speaking to a congregation that nearly filled First Assembly's 6,500-seat sanctuary, Barnett stopped short of naming names. But he spoke of the evil of a candidate who "endorses same-sex union . . . giving our junior-high students condoms . . . promotes child killing . . . supports the placing of women in combat, endorses children in divorcing their parents, wants equal rights for gays."
He told his flock the IRS should give the church a wide berth: "Hasn't the Bible taught us that a nation that is righteous will prosper? It will increase and it will be blessed. But you say if we speak the truth and take a stand, they'll take away our tax-exempt [status]. Well be it. If we let the tax status buy our silence, we are not the people of God. . . . We will not wear Caesar's muzzle. We are going to be the church that God wants us to be and speak out our voice. . . ." On abortion, he didn't hold back: "Barry Goldwater, I love you and I appreciate you . . . but when I see your TV ads in which you are saying that women have a right to choose. . . . Yeah, right, they had a right to choose before they got in union in this relationship. . . . In your heart, don't you know that it's not right to burn a little baby that has no choice?"
Barnett's pitch for cash: "What can we do? Well, I'll tell you. . . . First of all, we're going to go vote. . . . They got all the money in the newspaper. They got all the money for the ads. We don't hardly have any. Put the ads on. I'll tell you what we're going to do after the service. . . . After the service is over, the ushers are going to stand at the door with offering pans, and if you'd like to give some money to put these ads on, to show our point, to get the news out in the next week, I want you to just drop it in on the way out. This is not for a candidate. This is to put ads on for Proposition 110. I think we ought to act. Give the Lord a good clap." There was loud applause, followed by $5,000 for Proposition 110.
But neither the Secretary of State's Office nor the IRS is applauding.
"This notion of passing the hat--which isn't allowed--has happened before," says Vagenas, "but this is the first church I've heard of doing it."
Says Thomas of the IRS: "When you start taking sides, when you start influencing elections for individuals or for a policy or a program, that could be dangerous" to tax-exempt status.