Church officials at Dove World Outreach Center clearly didn’t want to see Craig Lowe elected as mayor of Gainesville, Fla.
Lowe, a candidate in a run-off election in April, is openly gay. So when a hand-drawn sign was posted on the fundamentalist church’s land a few weeks before the election that declared, “No homo mayor,” it wasn’t too hard to figure out who the church was targeting.
When questioned about the sign by The Gainesville Sun, the church’s senior pastor Terry Jones spelled it out.
“We don’t feel as though the city should be represented by a homosexual,” he said.
Dove World Outreach Center, like many other non-profits, receives an exemption under federal tax law. And like all other 501(c)(3) groups, the church is expected not to “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
Yet the pastors at Dove World don’t appear to take seriously their responsibility to obey federal law. Instead, they claim it’s their right to speak out against the mayoral candidate.
In the weeks leading up to the run-off between Lowe and candidate Don Marsh, Dove World posted two videos, one on YouTube and another on the church’s Web site, in which a junior pastor, Wayne Sapp, warned against voting for Lowe, claiming he is “trying to convert Gainesville into Homoville.”
“Here in Gainesville,” Sapp said in the YouTube video, “they’re getting ready to have a run-off election between two candidates, and one of them is openly a homo, gay, fag – whatever you want to call him. We can’t have it.”
The six-minute video, which was replete with offensive and outrageous rhetoric, was soon removed from YouTube for violating the site’s terms of service, but another appeared on the church’s Web site a few days later, to drive the point home.
“[Homosexuality] is a sin that leads to hell,” Sapp continued. “[A] public office such as mayor, governor, president, should not be held by such people, because they’re perverts, they’re sexually perverted…. They cannot restrain themselves.”
Sapp claimed he reached out to more than 100 churches in Gainesville to join the campaign against Lowe. To his disappointment, none would do so.
Dove World may be an extreme example, but it is certainly not the only house of worship that wants to evade federal tax law and use church resources to intervene in elections. Many Religious Right leaders claim the Internal Revenue Service Code is an unconstitutional way to “silence” the church and are seeking opportunities to challenge the no-electioneering rule in federal court.
In 2008, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a legal outfit founded by TV preachers, began encouraging pastors across the country to violate the law and endorse candidates from the pulpit. Each year in September, the group sponsors “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a day when churches are urged to intervene in elections in the hope that the ADF will be able to develop a lawsuit.
Just weeks before Dove World put up its anti-Lowe sign, ADF senior attorney Erik Stanley was in nearby Orlando, Fla., speaking to 200 Florida pastors and announcing that this year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday is scheduled for Sept. 26, in time for mid-term elections.
“It’s time to free pastors to shine the bright light of the Gospel in the area of politics and candidates,” Stanley said. “[T]his is not about turning churches into political action committees [or] promoting any particular candidate or political party.
“In fact,” he continued, “this is not about political speech from the pulpit. When you as a pastor stand in your pulpit and you preach the Word of God to your congregation, it is not political speech. It is core religious expression. You can’t get any more religious expression than a pastor preaching from the pulpit.”
According to the Florida Baptist Witness, Stanley even urged those pastors who believe it is wrong to speak about political candidates to still support the effort.
“You should certainly agree with the principle that the pulpit should be free, and that pastors ought to be free to speak scriptural truth,” he told the crowd.
Stanley hopes that this year the ADF can persuade a federal court to step in and “remove the power from the IRS to censor sermons.”
Though Stanley claims he’s only interested in protecting the speech of pastors from the pulpit, Religious Right groups have always welcomed church intervention into campaigns in any shape or form. Federal legislation sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) would have allowed broad-based church intervention in elections.
Barry W. Lynn, AU’s executive director, said Stanley is misguided. Federal tax law does not prevent churches from speaking on the issues of the day, but only from becoming cogs in any candidate’s political machine.
“Anyone who has ever seen cable news in the past decade knows that a vast assemblage of preachers from the late Jerry Falwell to the recently retired Jeremiah Wright have been talking about moral issues and applauding or condemning policies until they were blue in the face,” Lynn wrote in a op-ed for AOL News. “People who are real – or even imagined – moral leaders would be expected to have opinions on ethical questions in the nation. The IRS doesn’t tell them they can’t.”
What the agency rules do say is that if a church wants the privilege of the tax exemption, it must eschew electioneering. In his editorial, Lynn recalled that Martin Luther King Jr. did not endorse candidates – yet no one could ever claim he was censored from speaking out on important issues.
A federal appeals court has upheld the tax law ban on campaign intervention by non-profits, saying in Branch Ministries v. Rossotti that it does not violate anyone’s free speech or freedom of religion.
Most Americans agree that churches should stay out of elections. In September 2008, LifeWay Research, an organization affiliated with the Southern Baptists, found that 87 percent of Americans agreed that pastors shouldn’t endorse candidates during worship services.
But churches like Dove World and Religious Right organizations like the ADF are persistent in their efforts to use houses of worship to influence elections.
For years, Americans United has been working to stop religious institutions from abusing their tax privilege and to keep the law intact. Since 1996, Americans United, through its Project Fair Play, has educated religious leaders and other Americans about tax exemption and political activity. AU sends informational letters to clergy and files complaints with the IRS when there are egregious violations.
Upon learning about Dove World’s politicking activities, Americans United sent a letter to the IRS on March 26, asking for an investigation.
“This is an open-and-shut case,” said AU’s Lynn in a press statement. “The church freely admits that it intended to intervene in the election in violation of federal tax law.”
This would not be the first time Dove World has been in trouble with the authorities. Toward the end of 2009, officials became aware that Pastor Jones and his wife, Sylvia, were operating a for-profit corporation, TS and Company, out of the church sanctuary.
According to The Gainesville Sun, the Alachua County Property Appraiser’s Office soon began investigating the church’s tax-exempt status. In order to receive a tax exemption, Dove World must use at least 51 percent of its property for religious services, not to run a for-profit eBay furniture company.
In addition, records show that Jones and his wife have helped bring at least three foreign citizens to Gainesville on religious visas, which are issued solely for visitors to do work that is strictly religious in nature. Yet according to reports, these volunteers said they spent their days working for TS and Company, not engaging in religious activities.
Over the course of 2009, 17 court-ordered volunteers had served 389 hours at the church, and at least some spent that time working for TS and Company, not for the church. According to the contract with the county, all court-appointed volunteers must work for a non-profit organization.
The church’s funding is also a mystery. Jones claims his congregation is made up of only 80 people, yet the church’s land and two buildings are valued at $1,651,200 – all untaxed. Jones would not disclose to the Sun how much the for-profit brings into the church, but admitted that a portion of the proceeds does go to Dove World.
Before last summer, no one seemed to pay attention to the congregation. According to the church’s Web site, it was founded in September 1986 by the late Dr. Donald Northrup. He held initial meetings in his house and eventually raised $150,000 in 28 days to buy the current property.
Northrup died in 1996, and Jones took over as head pastor in 2001. Northrup’s widow, Elsie Northrup, told the Sun she left the church last year over concerns about where the congregation was heading.
Jones says the church is nondenominational and charismatic, and the Dove World Web site, www.doveworld.org, claims the congregation’s goal is to get people to “stand up for the righteousness and for the truth of the Bible.
“Any religion which would profess anything other than this truth,” the Web site adds, “is of the devil.”
The church’s flair for hostile speech has brought public and media attention. Last July, for example, church officials put up an “Islam is the Devil” sign.
Jones said at the time that he was expressing his religious belief and it was “a great act of love.
“It’s an act of saying there is only one way, and that is actually what Christianity is about,” he said. “It is about pointing the people in the right direction, and that right direction is Jesus and only Jesus. We feel the sign is an act of giving the people a chance.”
The church’s Web site is also full of videos featuring vitriolic and racially charged rhetoric. On his Web-based “Braveheart Show,” Jones claims that abortion in the United States “makes the German Holocaust look like a Christmas party.”
On another video, Sapp claims that “homosexuals are going to force themselves onto your children and into your businesses.
“Pastors,” he warned, “unless you stand up to do your job, you are going to be forced to hire a homo to work in your church!”
Dove World officials say their intervention in the Gainesville mayor’s race is within their constitutional rights. But less than a week after AU’s IRS complaint became public, the church changed its sign from “No homo Mayor,” to “No homo” – an alteration that downplays the election intervention.
The retreat has likely come too late, said Lynn.
“Bigotry isn’t illegal, but endorsing or opposing a particular candidate certainly is,” said Lynn. “This is a nice try, but it doesn’t change the fact that they outwardly opposed Lowe for office. It’s time they pay the consequences.”
Editor’s note: As Church & State went to press, candidate Lowe appeared to have won the mayoral election by 35 votes, but a recount was under way.