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Pastors test IRS ban on politics

September 29, 2008|Bob Pool and My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writers

Two Orange County ministers were among dozens across the country taking politics to the pulpit Sunday in hopes of influencing the Nov. 4 presidential election.

Unlike some pastors elsewhere who endorsed Republican John McCain during "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," the two ministers stopped short of explicitly recommending that worshipers vote for either McCain or Democrat Barack Obama. But they were not shy about raising politics in church.

Pastor Stephen B. Orman urged those attending his Warner Avenue Baptist Church service in Huntington Beach to use the Bible as a voters' guide and evaluate candidates and issues on the basis of Christian scripture.

The Rev. Wiley S. Drake suggested that those at his First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park vote for him -- and for his presidential running mate on the American Independent Party ticket, Alan Keyes.

Drake asked his congregation to support the challenge to the federal ban on political campaigning by nonprofit groups.

"I am angry because the government and the IRS and some Christians have taken away the rights of pastors," Drake said to about 45 people at his service. "I have a right to endorse anybody I doggone well please. And if they don't like that, too bad."

Orman told the 75 people in his pews that he shelved a previously planned subject in order to deliver what he called "An Election Sermon."

"There has been a movement going on to encourage preachers to preach about the upcoming election and even to come out and tell people who you're voting for," Orman said. "And perhaps even tell people who they ought to be voting for."

A conservative legal group based in Arizona, Alliance Defense Fund, said it planned to support ministers testing the Internal Revenue Service rule. Congress made it illegal in 1954 for tax-exempt organizations to publicly support or oppose political candidates.

Other clerics and critics condemned Sunday's actions by the 33 pastors in 22 states. They warned that pulpit politicking would undercut the independence that churches have had to speak out about moral and ethical issues.

"Pastors have a responsibility to the whole of their flock to provide spiritual support and guidance" but not partisan political advice, said the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

But Erik Stanley, Alliance Defense Fund senior legal counsel, disagreed.

His group is prepared to defend the 1st Amendment rights of churches investigated for politicking. "If the 1st Amendment doesn't protect controversial speech," he said, "it protects no speech at all."

It was unclear how many of the ministers taking part in Sunday's action were actually crossing the IRS line.

In West Bend, Wis., the Associated Press reported that Pastor Luke Emrich told 100 worshipers at his evangelical New Life Church, "I would cast a vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin," adding, "it's your choice to make, it's not my choice."

Pastor Jody Hice of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Bethlehem, Ga., compared Obama and McCain on abortion and same-sex marriage and concluded that McCain "holds more to a biblical world view."

At the independent Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, Okla., Pastor Paul Blair likewise told his congregation of his support for McCain.

In Buena Park, members of Drake's congregation called out "Amen" and applauded during his sermon.

He urged members to think about their faith when voting and spent much of his 40-minute sermon giving a partisan speech about the presidential candidates and their issues. "According to my Bible and in my opinion, there is no way in the world a Christian can vote for Barack Hussein Obama," Drake said. "Mr. Obama is not standing up for anything that is tradition in America."

He urged prayers for the American Independent Party. "We are going to do more damage to the Democrats and Republicans than we have ever done," he said.

William Ruffin, who has attended the church for 10 years and is a Bible studies teacher there, said that he believed that denying freedom of speech in the pulpit "means that this country is living as hypocrites."

In Huntington Beach, Orman spoke of personal responsibility, citing home schooling as an example. He said judges who recently ruled against restrictions on home instruction deserve support as churchgoers check the records of judges and vote out those they feel "have been doing wrong."

He said he favors the separation of church and state, "but I don't believe in the separation of God and government."

In terms of the presidential and vice presidential election, "you can look at the names Barack and Joseph and you can look at John and Sarah and find them all in Scriptures," Orman said, prompting loud laughter from those in the 102-year-old sanctuary.

Orman ended his sermon by urging those in the congregation to vote. He said a voter registration table would be available outside after the service.

There were no takers at the sign-up table. Congregant Pamela Dyrud of Santa Ana said most at Warner Avenue Baptist Church promptly register to vote when they turn 18.

Deacon Kenneth Williams said he felt Orman got his point across without jeopardizing the congregation's tax-exempt IRS status -- or pulling any punches.

Visitor Judy Ahrens described Sunday as "historic" and Orman's sermon as "courageous and brave." She said she might start attending his church regularly.

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.

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