Burying a church-state sin

focus 01 In January, I noted that the Las Vegas Review Journal had scooped the national press with its story that a pastor had endorsed Barack Obama from the pulpit, a violation of federal law. Now reporter Jeff Goldblatt of FOX News has done the same, concluding that Obama's controversial pastor also crossed the line.

"There is a man here who can take this country in a new direction," [Jeremiah] Wright said during his sermon, according to recordings obtained by FOX News. ...

"It's pretty clear an indirect endorsement of Barack Obama -- that's not something you're supposed to do according to the tax code," said Andrew Walsh, a professor at Trinity College who specializes in religion in politics.

The tax code bans churches from participating in or intervening in a political campaign. Violations can result in the loss of a church's tax exempt status.

Goldblatt makes a compelling case. Obama appeared at the church. Wright endorsed him, albeit indirectly. Why are reporters not investigating this?

Unfortunately, Goldblatt makes a mistake similar to that of Ball -- he buried his story. He should have focused exclusively on the church-state violation angle. Instead, he wrote about Wright's racial views and language. The story's focus on the latter make it seem like a political hit piece rather than an investigatory article.

To be sure, Goldblatt returns to the church-state angle. He notes that the IRS is investigating whether Obama violated church-state law by speaking at the United Church of Christ's conference last year. But that is old news, apparently.

By failing to focus on the church-state topic, Goldblatt also confused readers about the nature of Wright's violation. Wright endorsed Obama indirectly. How does the IRS or federal law regard that as opposed to a direct violation?

Also, Goldblatt quotes Walsh as saying that church-state issues are rarely prosecuted. Why, exactly, is that? Walsh's explanation, that of a tension between pastors' right to speak in the public marketplace and IRS rules, is opaque.

Focus on the church-state entanglement, not extraneous political issues.

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