The church and politics 

Outspoken pastor-politician says tax-exempt churches should stay

Judge Wendell Griffen of the Arkansas Court of Appeals is a politician, an ordained minister and former pastor, and, as Arkansans have come to know, an ardent practitioner of free speech. But he does not believe that pastors and churches should be taking sides in partisan political contests - unless they're prepared to give up the federal tax exemption that churches enjoy. Like other nonprofit groups, churches are allowed a tax exemption precisely because they're supposedly nonpartisan, Griffen said. "If Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross can't engage in partisan political activity without losing their tax exemptions, I don't know why a church congregation should be allowed to do so," he said. "It was Jesus who said 'Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.' " "Religious Right" churches that endorse partisan political candidates (usually Republican) often say they're only doing what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did. "They're making a false argument, and I think they know they're making a false argument," Griffen said. "Dr. King led a movement based on religion, but it was nonpartisan. He did not endorse candidates. He fought for social justice, and he made no apologies for being a Christian minister, and he got some of his strongest opposition from people who are now in the Religious Right. They didn't like him using his Christian faith to fight for social justice." The Arkansas Times called Griffen for comment on a controversy involving First Baptist Church of Springdale, the state's largest church. A national organization called Americans United for Separation of Church and State has asked for an Internal Revenue Service investigation to determine whether the church should lose its tax exemption. The call was prompted by a sermon delivered July 4 by the church pastor, Ronnie Floyd. Also shown on television and the church's Web site, the sermon presented President Bush as one who supports God's principles and John Kerry as one who doesn't. Floyd told his flock to "Vote God." Floyd has said that Americans United is trying to restrict free speech. U.S. Rep. John Boozman, a Republican who represents the Third District, where Floyd's church is located, is a co-sponsor of a bill that would allow churches to take sides in partisan contests without losing their tax exemption. Two years ago, the outspoken Griffen was admonished by the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission for telling black legislators they should withhold support from the University of Arkansas for what Griffen said was lack of progress in hiring and promoting black administrators and faculty. In 2003, the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned the commission action in a 4-3 decision, saying that the judicial canon of ethics cited by the commission was so vague as to intrude on free speech. Earlier this year, Griffen was an unsuccessful candidate for a seat on the Supreme Court. More recently, he testified for former UA basketball coach Nolan Richardson in Richardson's wrongful dismissal suit against the university. He said that Richardson was fired for being an uppity black person, and shouldn't be penalized for applying the word "redneck" to white critics. Griffen said that in the pulpit, "I preach about social justice. I preach about issues of compassion and issues of fairness. And I preach about practices and policies that appear to violate Christian principles. I try to be forthright about truth and justice without suggesting to people that a congregation owes a candidate its vote." Churches can participate in voter-registration drives and other nonpartisan political activity, Griffen said, and pastors and church members can take sides in partisan politics as individuals, but not as a congregation. "It is interesting that during the Reagan administration, black clergy who were engaged in mere voter-registration efforts were targeted for prosecution," Griffen said. "I'm having a tough time understanding how people who sat quietly while black ministers were being investigated and prosecuted for voter-registration efforts, now somehow think it's legitimate to engage in partisan political endorsements, as has been the case of some elements of the Religious Right." As to whether a specific church activity is illegal, Griffen said that was for the IRS to decide.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Doug Smith

  • The L word and the C word

    I was excited to see the newspaper headline "Bielema liberal." "After all those neo-Nazis, we've finally got a coach who thinks right," I told friends. "I wonder if he belongs to the ADA."
    • May 1, 2014
  • Who's exasperated?

    Jim Newell was gripped by exasperation himself after reading this item in the business section. "Exacerbated" is the word the writer wanted, he sagely suggests.
    • Apr 24, 2014
  • We will run no race before it's ripe

    "What year would Oaklawn recognize as its 100th anniversary? After all, Oaklawn's advertising material is ripe with 'Since 1904,' but it's widely reported the first race wasn't run until 1905."
    • Apr 17, 2014
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Kanis development decried

    Fletcher Hollow wrong place for density, neighbors tell LR planners.
    • Oct 8, 2015
  • Eligible voters removed from rolls

    Arkansas Times reporters contacted election officials around the state to see how they had handled flawed felon data from the secretary of state. Responses varied dramatically.
    • Aug 11, 2016
  • Real Republicans don't do pre-K

    Also, drifting away from trump, Hudson's downfall at ASU and more.
    • Aug 11, 2016

Most Shared

  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders to be deputy White House press secretary

    Donald Trump announced additional White House staff today, notably including Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy assistant to the president and principal deputy press secretary.
  • Legislation filed for $10 million school voucher program

    The legislation to vastly expand transfer of state tax dollars to private schools came before the school choice day event I mentioned earlier.
  • Pork and more

    Some notes on disparate topics before I take a vacation break.
  • Trumpeting

    When President-elect Trump announced he would, in a few days, force Congress to enact comprehensive health insurance for everyone, poor or rich, that would provide better and cheaper care than they've ever gotten, you had to wonder whether this guy is a miracle worker or a fool.
  • Putin and Trump

    Here's a thought exercise: What do you suppose would happen if Russian strongman Vladimir Putin decided to clarify remarks he reportedly made about Donald Trump during the election campaign?

Latest in Arkansas Reporter

Visit Arkansas

1.73-carat diamond found at Crater of Diamonds State Park

1.73-carat diamond found at Crater of Diamonds State Park

Jack Pearadin and Doug Nelsen found a 1.73-carat diamond after nearly a year of searching the park's field.

Event Calendar

« »


1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31  

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Inconsequential News Quiz: Trumpocalypse Now Edition

    • PLEASE READ!!! Celebrate this season with joy and gladness in your heart, Do you know…

    • on January 20, 2017
  • Re: Profile of a plant

    • I have been diagnosed with COPD for over 7 years. A couple of months ago…

    • on January 19, 2017
  • Re: Profile of a plant

    • There is plenty of studies out there, which fill in the holes in this story…

    • on January 19, 2017

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation