Yesterday Americans United asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate a Warroad, Minn., church whose pastor told congregants in a sermon that no Christian can vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune picked up on the story today. Reporter Pat Doyle interviewed Pastor Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church, and the paper reprinted the entire text of Booth's May 18 sermon.
Booth is unapologetic about what he did. He insists he has a free-speech right to engage in pulpit-based electioneering and said, "If we lost it (tax-exemption), then so be it."
This isn't surprising, since Booth essentially taunted AU into reporting him. In a June 3 e-mail to AU, Booth sent us a story about his sermon that appeared in the Warroad Pioneer.
He wrote, "As you can see from the attached newspaper article, I specifically made recommendations as to who a Christian should vote for. I have read in the past about how you have a campaign to intimidate churches into silence when it comes to speaking about candidates for office. I am letting you know that I will not be intimidated into silence when I believe that God wants me to address the great moral issues of the day, including who will be our next national leader."
Booth is a little confused. Americans United is not trying to "intimidate" anyone. We just want pastors to follow the law. The Internal Revenue Code states that all non-profit, 501(c)(3) organizations, religious and secular, must refrain from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates. Exemption from paying taxes is a valuable benefit, and the "no politicking" rule is one of the conditions that must be met to get it. It's not too much to ask.
It looks like Booth clearly violated the law. Booth, who by the way is a delegate to the Republican National Convention this year, is the top official of his church. His salary is paid by the tax-exempt donations of congregation. When he steps into his tax-exempt pulpit, he is a church official speaking on behalf of his tax-exempt organization.
During his sermon he stated, "There is no middle ground in this election. If you are a Christian, you cannot support a candidate like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton for President because he/she stands opposite of every one of the Biblical mandates we have addressed today. I urge you, when you enter that voting booth, to not vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or candidates like him/her that support and encourage activities our Lord condemns in the strongest terms."
On Tuesday, I sat in on a one-hour conference call sponsored by the IRS for tax attorneys and non-profit representatives on the issue of political activity. The IRS representatives who spoke once again made it clear that the tax agency takes complaints of breaches of the law seriously and that egregious violations can result in revocation of tax-exempt status.
The IRS has established a special project – the Political Activity Compliance Initiative – to ensure that the law is followed. Each week, three career IRS employees meet to discuss this issue and look over complaints that have been received. The IRS is so concerned about unlawful politicking by non-profits that this year it plans to examine candidate Federal Election Commission filings to make sure non-profits are not unlawfully donating funds to campaigns.
The law is clear, and the IRS intends to enforce it. It is time for Pastor Booth and people who think like him to either obey our nation's laws or surrender their tax-exempt status.