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Pastors plan to defy IRS on politics

Ministers will intentionally violate ban on campaigning by nonprofits in hopes of generating test case.

September 25, 2008|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Setting the stage for a collision of religion and politics, Christian ministers from California and 21 other states will use their pulpits Sunday to deliver political sermons or endorse presidential candidates -- defying a federal ban on campaigning by nonprofit groups.

The pastors' advocacy could violate the Internal Revenue Service's rules against political speech with the purpose of triggering IRS investigations.

That would allow their patron, the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund, to challenge the IRS' rules, a risky strategy that one defense fund attorney acknowledges could cost the churches their tax-exempt status. Congress made it illegal in 1954 for tax-exempt groups to publicly support or oppose political candidates.

"I'm going to talk about the un-biblical stands that Barack Obama takes. Nobody who follows the Bible can vote for him," said the Rev. Wiley S. Drake of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park. "We may not be politically correct, but we are going to be biblically correct. We are going to vote for those who follow the Bible."

Drake was the target of a recent IRS investigation into his endorsement last year of former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. In the end, Drake was cleared.

Drake and 32 other pastors who have signed on to the "pulpit initiative" have sparked loud condemnations by fellow clergy and advocates of the separation of church and state.

These critics, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argue that Sunday's sermons at churches in Oregon, Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and other states will violate federal tax law by politicizing the pulpit. That, they believe, will undercut the independence churches have long enjoyed to speak out about moral and ethical issues in American life, including women's suffrage, child labor and civil rights.

"The integrity of the religious community is at stake when religion and politics become entangled," said the Rev. Eric Williams of the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio.

Williams was recruited for the defense fund but instead joined with 54 other Christian and Jewish clergy members to file a complaint against the initiative with the IRS.

The religious leaders asked the agency to stop the Arizona-based defense fund from recruiting churches and to investigate whether its efforts may jeopardize its own tax-exempt status.

Representing the religious leaders are three Washington attorneys, all former IRS officials, who also filed a complaint accusing defense fund attorneys of violating IRS rules by helping the churches break federal law.

Meanwhile, a separate group of 180 ministers, rabbis and imams also has sought to counter the "pulpit initiative."

Members of the Interfaith Alliance -- which includes the nation's top Episcopal bishop -- have signed a pledge to refrain from electioneering in their houses of worship.

"Political activity and political expressions are very important, but partisan politics are . . . . a death knell to the prophetic freedom that any religious organization must protect," said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, who signed the pledge.

All Saints survived a nearly two-year IRS investigation after former Rector George Regas spoke out against the Iraq war on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. Bacon repeatedly said the church did not engage in campaigning. The IRS dropped the case last year even though agency officials indicated that they still considered the sermon to be illegal.

All Saints leaders voiced frustration Wednesday at pulpit initiative backers for using the Pasadena church's fight with the IRS as fodder for their cause.

"These people are wanting to promote one candidate over another and that's a huge difference," Bacon said.

At the heart of the controversy is the Johnson amendment, named after former President Lyndon Johnson, a senator from Texas when it was enacted in 1954. The measure stated that nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations cannot participate in political campaigns for or against candidates for public office.

Many churches have appeared to step over the line, but legal scholars could recall only one church that lost its tax-exempt status -- a congregation in New York that urged voters not to vote for Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential race.

The defense fund said churches targeted by the IRS would serve as clients for lawsuits against the agency in federal court.

The defense fund issued seemingly contradictory statements about the initiative. On one hand, it insists pastors will not endorse candidates and will simply exercise their constitutional rights by addressing "the differing positions of the presidential candidates in light of Scripture."

On the other hand, the defense fund describes its efforts as a "strategic litigation plan" that seeks to "restore the right of each pastor to speak scriptural truth from the pulpit" without losing a church's tax-exempt status.

"The bottom line is that churches and pastors have a right to speak freely from the pulpit," said Dale Schowengerdt, a defense fund attorney working on the project. "They should not be intimidated into silence by unconstitutional IRS regulations or rules."

Still, recognizing the confrontational nature of their strategy and wary of protests, the defense fund released the name of only one pastor ahead of Sunday -- the Rev. Gus Booth of the Warroad Community Church in rural Minnesota, who already is the subject of a complaint filed with the IRS over a May sermon in which he urged congregants to oppose Obama and Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton because of their positions on abortion.

"There is nobody who will ever tell me what I can and cannot say from behind my pulpit," Booth said, "except the spirit of God or the word of God."

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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