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.