Religous Freedom

Politics From Pulpit Will Deliver Challenge to IRS

About 30 ministers across the U.S. plan to protest federal tax laws Sunday by endorsing a presidential candidate from their pulpits, in a move orchestrated by a conservative legal-advocacy group.

The Alliance Defense Fund, of Scottsdale, Ariz., hopes that at least one sermon will prod the Internal Revenue Service to take action, sparking a court fight over a law that bars nonprofits from partisan political activity. Alliance and several ministers taking part in the protest insist that the law is unconstitutional and believe they would prevail in a court battle.

"As a pastor, I have the right to speak biblical truth without being punished for it," said the Rev. Jody Hice, pastor of Bethlehem First Baptist Church in Bethlehem, Ga., who says he will tell his congregation he backs Sen. John McCain for president. "The IRS does not have the role of censoring speech from the pulpit."

Some experts say the churches are misguided, and their nonprofit status can be lawfully regulated. "Congress has created a provision" to exempt churches from taxes, "and that provision has restrictions," says Donald Tobin, associate law-school dean at Ohio State University and a former Justice Department attorney. Churches "are obligated to follow them if they want the benefit."

Three former IRS chiefs complained to the tax agency this month that the Alliance Defense Fund had violated federal rules by coordinating a "mass violation of federal tax law." Tax professionals aren't allowed to advise a client to break the law, says Marcus Owens, a complainant who is the former director of the agency's nonprofit division. The IRS has said it is reviewing the complaint. Erik Stanley, the Alliance Defense Fund's senior legal counsel, says he hasn't heard from the IRS.

Even before the protest, churches and their leaders have been in the spotlight during this campaign. Candidates have sought the counsel and endorsements of religious leaders. Campaign field workers are visiting churches, and nuns and clergy are being enlisted to make campaign calls and give talks.

Church electioneering in 2006 drew IRS scrutiny. The agency said in the summer of 2007 that it was reviewing complaints against 44 churches in elections that year. Earlier this year, the IRS opened an investigation of the United Church of Christ after Sen. Barack Obama discussed aspects of his platform at a church convention. The probe was dropped when the IRS found the church didn't step over the line.

The Alliance said it contacted "hundreds" of ministers, rabbis and priests, seeking a range of political views for Sunday's action. But most of the churches it managed to recruit appear to be evangelical Protestant or Pentecostal congregations, whose pastors and members tend to be right-leaning. Several said in interviews that they will back the McCain-Palin ticket.

The group told churches this spring that sermons would be prepared with "the legal assistance of the ADF to ensure maximum effectiveness in challenging the IRS," according to documents from the Alliance Defense Fund Web site. Mr. Stanley says that some early materials were later revised, and that Alliance didn't coach the ministers, but advised them to "preach a sermon that evaluates the current light of scripture and, based on that, make specific recommendations as to how the congregation should vote. We haven't told them what the recommendations should be."

One Ohio minister contacted by Alliance gathered dozens of clergy and churchgoers who complained about the effort to the IRS. "If there are churches of any stripe that are breaking this tax code, the IRS should investigate. And that should include UCC churches," says the Rev. Eric Williams, pastor of a UCC church in Columbus. "This is about, for me, guarding the integrity of the church."

The Rev. Gus Booth, pastor of Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minn., is considering making "just a straight endorsement of John McCain" on Sunday. A Minnesota delegate to the Republican National Convention, Mr. Booth told his congregation in a sermon in May not to vote for Sen. Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton because of their stand on abortion. He then challenged a secularist group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to complain to the IRS about his partisan activity, which it did. Mr. Booth wouldn't comment on whether he has been contacted by the IRS in that matter.

"Every election I say...'This is who I'm voting for. This is who I think you should vote for,' " said Mr. Booth, who preaches to about 150 people each Sunday. "As pastors, we tell people who you can have sex with -- only your spouse. If we can tell people what to do in the bedroom, we can certainly tell them what to do in the voting booth."

Members of Congress have made several unsuccessful attempts to repeal or amend the 1954 tax law that bars partisan activity by nonprofits. Only one church has challenged the law in court -- it lost its tax-exempt status.