Project Fair Play

Branch Ministries v. Rossotti

Religious Right legal groups often assert that houses of worship have a right, under free speech or freedom of religion, to endorse or oppose candidates. This is incorrect.

The question has already been tested in federal court. This case, Branch Ministries v. Rosotti, is important because it debunks so many Religious Right claims about church-based politicking.

The controversy started late in October of 1992 when Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service over a small church outside of Binghamton, N.Y. AU asserted that the Church at Pierce Creek (also known as Branch Ministries) had violated its tax exempt status by encouraging Christians to vote against presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

After a lengthy investigation, the IRS rescinded the church’s tax exemption. The church, represented by Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), sued the IRS. Robertson’s legal group cited both free speech and freedom of religion in defending the church but was unsuccessful.

In March 1999, a federal district court ruled in favor of the IRS, rejecting the church’s claims. The Robertson legal group appealed on behalf of the church. That case was heard by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and again the church lost. The appeals court ruled unanimously in May of 2000 that the IRS had acted within the scope of its authority. (AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, supporting the IRS’s revocation of church’s tax exempt status.)

Writing for the unanimous court, Senior Circuit Judge James Buckley found that “the revocation of the Church’s tax-exempt status neither violated the Constitution nor exceeded the IRS’s statutory authority.”

Elsewhere, Judge Buckley soundly rejected the ACLJ’s argument that the IRS has no legal authority to deal with the tax exemption of churches, writing, “We find this argument more creative than persuasive.”

The case ended here when the ACLJ decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group, often asserts that tax-exemption for houses of worship is a constitutional right. This is also incorrect. Tax exemption is not mentioned in the Constitution. Tax exemption is a benefit, and as such it may be extended with conditions. In the United States, one of those conditions is that houses of worship and other groups that accept tax exemption must refrain from intervening in partisan elections.

The court’s ruling in the Branch Ministries case shows conclusively that the Religious Right is wrong when it argues that pastors have a constitutional right to use their churches to endorse or oppose candidates. Clerics who disobey the law do so at their own peril.