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Politics in the pulpit at issue

Complaints to IRS are welcomed by pastors who are defying ban.

October 03, 2008|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

A watchdog group that advocates the separation of church and state has filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service against seven churches, including one in Orange County, where pastors on Sunday endorsed presidential candidates or delivered political sermons -- defying a federal ban on campaigning by nonprofit groups.

"These pastors have decided to thumb their noses at the Internal Revenue Service and at the whole concept that the church is a place where partisanship should be left at the door," said the Rev Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But the complaints, one filed Thursday and the others earlier in the week, were welcomed by the Alliance Defense Fund. The conservative legal group in Arizona organized Pulpit Freedom Sunday as an opening salvo in a legal assault against the federal law that prohibits candidate endorsements by tax-exempt organizations.

As the group described the effort, 31 pastors at Christian congregations around the country evaluated the "differing positions of the presidential candidates in light of Scripture." (Two others are expected to do the same within the next month.)

Many of the religious leaders endorsed Republican nominee John McCain or spoke out against Democrat Barack Obama.

The defense fund pledged to represent the churches in federal lawsuits to overturn the 54-year-old federal ban that, the organization believes, has stripped churches of their constitutional freedoms of speech and religion.

The seven churches that drew the attention of the Americans United group included First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park.

Defense fund attorney Erik Stanley said he was not concerned about the IRS complaints. Participating pastors, he said, will be sending copies of their sermons to the IRS as a follow-up to their Sunday addresses.

"The goal was to make this pulpit initiative something the IRS could not ignore," Stanley said. "The end result is a victory either way. If the IRS comes after them, the churches have their day in court. If the IRS doesn't come after them, it's basically a green light to go forward. But ultimately these churches are hoping for their day in court."

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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