Texas Governor Rick Perry's "Day of Christian Prayer", which he bills as a "a non-denominational, apolitical, Christian prayer meeting" scheduled for August 6th in Houston, raises a number of concerns about the eroding line between politics and religion among some Republicans. But it also raises scores of questions about potential tax law violations of its tax exempt sponsors as well as election law violations by Governor Perry.
While Perry is at least nominally not a declared candidate for president, he is a lead sponsor of the day of prayer. Conveniently, the command and control of the prayer groups looks like the bare-bones of a political campaign, including a "finance director", an "event coordinator" drawn from a public affairs firm, and a legal counsel.
Maybe they should start advising Governor Perry that he and his sponsors could be in a lot of trouble.
The IRS has very strict and specific rules for religious institutions that are exempt from tax under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 501(c)(3). While religious institutions can engage in public discourse and take positions on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, they are strictly prohibited from endorsing any specific candidate or position on a ballot. Those that violate the rules can have their tax exempt status withdrawn, which almost always causes them to fold and cease operations.
Governor Perry's "Day of 'Christian' Prayer" (which, presumably, means that Jews, Muslims,Hindus, Seikhs, Buddhists and a number of other religions represented in Texas basically aren't welcome), is not a "candidate" or a "position", so those christian groups who "endorse prayer" aren't violating the tax law, at least not technically. But any reasonable person would have to ask why a religious group would have to "endose" prayer. For a Christian to endose prayer is sort of like a orthodox Jew having to "endorse" circumcision; that is, it is so fundamental to their religious practice that there shoud be no need to "endorse" it.
One must question, then, specifically what these religious leaders are actually endorsing. Given that the leader of the affair is all but an announced candidate for president, it seems to me that these religious groups are endorsing a candidacy far more than a practice that is inherent in their tax-exempt purpose. The courts may come to a similar finding if they are asked to examine the facts.
The tax man may not be Perry's only probem, though. The Federal Election Commission may also want to scrutinize Governor Perry's "apolitical prayer meeting". The website for the group collects names, e-mail and zip codes for attendees. It would be quite troubling if that information ended up in the hands of a Perry 2012 presidential campaign. Moreover, the FEC may take a dim view of the multiple sponsors of the event for making what may amount to, in effect, a disguised contribuion to what amounts to a campaign rally. I'm sure the cost of renting out Reliant Stadium in Houston in August runs well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that's only for the air conditioning.
People should pray, in my view. And they should vote. But I've always been a bit uncomfortable with my the people I pray with telling me the people I should vote for or the people I vote for telling me who I should pray with. Governor Perry's prayer rally cum political rally cum prayer rally is, at the least, disconcerting for those of us who value the separation of church and state. Time will tell whether "disconcerting" morphs into "illegal". Nevertheless, the whole affair reeks of political and religious cynicism that betrays an extraordinary disregard and disrespect for religion, for politics, and for the constitution Governor Perry has sworn to uphold.