Church service partisan, group says New Psalmist welcomed Clinton and Glendening

November 17, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A watchdog group has filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service claiming that West Baltimore's New Psalmist Baptist Church improperly engaged in partisan politics when it welcomed President Clinton and Gov. Parris N. Glendening this month.

Officials from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said the Nov. 1 service at New Psalmist, two days before Glendening was re-elected, was essentially a Democratic Party rally.

Edward Smith Jr., an attorney for New Psalmist, said neither he nor the church has been informed by the IRS of any investigation. Smith denied that the church endorsed anyone.

At the Sunday morning service, Clinton urged the predominantly African-American congregation to go to the polls. "On Tuesday, you're in charge of the arithmetic -- if you vote," he said.

Parks, King mentioned

Later, he said: "There are thousands of you. You will see tens of thousands more between now and Tuesday. Be a doer. Take them by the hand. Tell them about Rosa Parks. Ask them not to forget what Dr. [Martin Luther] King died for."

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United, said politicians may appear at churches, but churches must draw the line at endorsing candidates, either explicitly or implicitly.

According to IRS regulations, churches and other nonprofit organizations that hold 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt status are not permitted to engage in partisan politics, which includes endorsing or opposing candidates, giving money to political campaigns or helping candidates win election.

"What we have a problem with is candidates of one party appearing at the pulpit for what is essentially a rally," Boston said. "That's the problem we have with New Psalmist."

But Smith, the church's lawyer, countered: "The one thing about this particular situation was this was a real service, and that's the way the pastor conducted it. There may have been others who had other agendas, but that's not what the church did."

Boston said that his organization has been monitoring political activity at churches for two years.

Complaint filed

Last month, the group filed a complaint to the IRS against the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland, claiming that the group promised to work for Glendening's re-election after the governor agreed to fund church-sponsored projects.

Americans United also warned churches that distributed the Christian Coalition's voters guide that they might be risking their IRS tax-exempt status because of the partisan nature of the guides, Boston said.

He said Americans United has no political agenda: "We've turned in churches for endorsing Democrats, and we've turned in churches for endorsing Republicans. We're trying to get all churches, regardless of political persuasion, to play by the rules."

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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