Religion spiced with politics

Published March 17, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The most outspoken voice against the Penny for Pinellas sales tax extension belonged to a Roman Catholic bishop.

A pastor helped mobilize critics of former Largo City Manager Steve Stanton. And a crowd of more than 2,000 people, who pressed government officials for affordable housing Monday night, drew its roots to churches and temples.

Religious groups have long lobbied for social justice issues, but the recent posturing from pulpits in Pinellas County highlights the challenges churches face as they seek to maintain a balance between a scriptural mandate to speak out and becoming too involved in politics.

"What these folks do is they skate on the thinnest edge of the law," said Rob E. Atkinson Jr., a law professor at Florida State University. "The law says you can't do any of it, and the Roman Catholic Church, along with lots of others, of course, do huge amounts of it."

Bishop Robert N. Lynch, the head of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, was careful not to tell people how to vote in the Penny for Pinellas contest but raised enough doubts that his opposition was clear. Despite his campaign, voters reauthorized the tax Tuesday.

"The good news is the United States is one of the places that toils with trying to balance it," said Jon Mills, a law professor at the University of Florida. "There are a lot of other places where the church is almost a defined political voice."

What saves U.S. religious organizations from losing their tax-exempt status is an apparent loophole in federal regulations. The rules allow nonprofits to crusade on behalf of public policy issues as long they don't endorse one political candidate over another. Federal tax regulations also prohibit 501 c (3) organizations from engaging in "substantial" lobbying activity or telling people how to vote.

Since the 2004 elections, the Internal Revenue Service has been cracking down on scofflaws. Concerned, religious leaders vow to proceed cautiously.

"In my heart of hearts, I know that if it were the difference between keeping quiet and exposing ourselves to becoming profit versus nonprofit, I would always pray that we would be loud," said St. Petersburg diocesan spokeswoman Vicki Wells Bedard. "As far as Bishop Lynch is concerned, he understands that, but he isn't silenced because of it."

Other religious groups also show few signs of backing down.

The Florida Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of Catholic bishops throughout the state, holds Catholic Days at the Capital in Tallahassee annually. This past week more than 250 Catholics met with legislators and discussed topics such as stem cell research, abstinence instruction and organ donation.

"The issues that we're discussing are current issues that are in play during the legislative session," said Michele M. Taylor, conference spokeswoman. "If it's not something that's currently being acted on, it's not going to move to the front burner."

In previous years the group has taken positions on school choice, same-sex marriage and Terri Schiavo.

On Monday, organizers of FAST, Faith and Action for Strength Together, an interfaith consortium of about 30 congregations, managed to wrest commitments from city and county officials to build 3,000 new low-cost housing units within three years. Since its founding in 2004, the group counts new bus shelters and funding for prekindergarten programs among its victories.

"God mandates us that we have to speak up for the poor and the needy, those who cannot speak for themselves and see that they get justice," said the Rev. Willie McClendon, co-chair of FAST's executive committee and pastor of the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Largo. "We're not a political organization. Our job is to hold those who are in power accountable."

That's a message embraced by the Rev. Kim Wells and her congregation at the Lakewood United Church of Christ. Earlier this week, the church voted to open a temporary tent-city on its property.

"It's not new for us to be doing something like this," said Wells, citing a long list of issues the church has championed. "... We're always looking to share and empower one another and be inspired."

Tax law experts said religious organizations have traditionally enjoyed significant leeway in lobbying. In many cases, the larger and more influential the religious body, the less likely the federal government is to pounce. It's what makes action's such as Bishop Lynch's recent campaign against the Penny tax possible with little fear of retribution.

"In his case, he's standing metaphorically just beyond the length of a very mean junk yard dog's chain and acting like a very bad school boy," Atkinson said. "He knows he's flagrantly flying in the face of the statute, but he also knows he can tease the dog."

Sherri Day can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.