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Randall Terry's Church Loses Tax Exempt Status

Posted March 31, 1999

In 1992 during the presidential campaign season, the Church at Pierce Creek, located outside of Binghamton, New York took out an ad in a few national papers saying, "Christian Beware: Do not put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments." The ad then went on to list supposed positions of Bill Clinton and asks at the end, "How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?" At the very bottom of the ad it said that "tax deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted. Make donations to: The Church at Pierce Creek."

Church's National Ad

Americans United for Separation of Church and State protested this blatant misuse of a non-profit tax exempt status and in 1995 the IRS revoked the church's permit. Pat Robertson's the American Center for Law and Justice was called into the fray to represent the Church and its Pastor, Dan Little, but to no avail. On March 30th, Judge Paul Friedman supported the IRS ruling and said the Church, (which is really just a DBA of Branch Ministries) cannot have it's non-profit status back. "The IRS clearly may revoke the tax-exempt status of any organization that publishes an advertisement in opposition to a candidate for public office," Judge Friedman wrote in his opinion.

On hearing the ruling, Americans United Executive Director, Barry Lynn, said: "This decision is a major blow to TV preacher Pat Robertson and other Religious Right leaders who have tried to politicize churches. This landmark ruling sends a strong message that churches must obey the prohibition on partisan politicking if they expect to remain tax exempt. From now on houses of worship that consider risking their tax exemption to get involved in electioneering had better realize that it's a gamble they're likely to lose."

AU's Lynn also said that the case, Branch Ministries v. Richardson was not about the free speech rights of churches. "Churches have every right to speak out on important issues of the day, but that's not what was involved in this case. This is about an illegal effort by a church to oppose a candidate for public office. If a church wants to be tax exempt, it has to be non-partisan. That's the law. It's impossible to reasonably argue that taking out a full-page political advertisement urging people to vote against a candidate is non-partisan."

This ruling leaves the Binghamton abortion-rights community with many unanswered questions. In truth, the Church at Pierce Creek does not really exist any more. Last year, Pastor Little bought a downtown Binghamton church that was up for sale by its congregation. The cost of running the church had become prohibitive and, if the church wasn't sold, the congregation was going to have to tear it down. But there was Pastor Little (with $55,000 in hand) to the rescue. The money to buy and renovate the church came from an anonymous donor. The Landmark church, as it is now called, had their first services one year ago at Easter time.

The building that housed the former Church at Pierce Creek was apparently given over to the town for a community center. It is believed that building was damaged in the tornado that swept this community last year. What is unknown at this time is, did Pastor Little also incorporate his new church, Landmark, under the non-profit status of Branch Ministries. If so, then the Landmark church, too, may not be non-profit any more.

When the Body Politic has more answers to these questions we will report it here.

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