Pulpit Plot Thickens

Americans United Files Seven Complaints With The IRS, After Churches Endorse Political Candidates In Religious Right Election Scheme

Philadelphia residents attending services at Calvary Chapel on the King’s Highway Sept. 28 heard the Rev. Francis Pultro make an unusual claim: their standing as Christians depends on how they vote in November.

“As Christians, it’s clear we should vote for John McCain,” Pultro told the 45 people in attendance. “He is the only candidate I believe a Christian can vote for.”

As The Wall Street Journal put it, Pultro “shrugged off federal laws restricting his role in partisan politics Sunday….”

Pultro was not the only one. On the same day, 31 other pastors around the country flagrantly defied federal tax law by endorsing Republican presidential candidate John McCain from the pulpit and/or attacking his opponent, Barack Obama.

The event, dubbed “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” was organized by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a well-heeled Religious Right legal group founded by television and radio preachers in 1993. Earlier this year, the ADF began soliciting pastors to take part in a scheme to deliberately violate federal tax law by endorsing or opposing political candidates from the pulpit on the last Sunday in September. The group, headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz., hopes to goad the Internal Revenue Service into revoking some of the churches’ tax exemptions, sparking a courtroom showdown.

Several of the law-breaking pastors received widespread coverage in the media, and on Monday, Sept. 29, Americans United reported six of the most egregious offenders to the IRS.

Pultro’s church was among those reported. The other five are:

• Bethlehem Baptist Church, Bethlehem, Ga.: According to press accounts, Pastor Jody Hice “urged his congregation to vote for Sen. John McCain and to not vote for Sen. Barack Obama.” On a tape recording of the sermon, Hice is heard saying, “When you enter the voting booth I want to urge you not to vote for Barack Obama” and “McCain…that’s who I’m going to be voting for, and I urge you to do the same.”

• Fairview Baptist Church, Edmond, Okla.: The Associated Press reported that Pastor Paul Blair “says he told his congregation that as a Christian and as an American citizen, he would be voting for John McCain.”

• Warroad Community Church, Warroad, Minn.: Pastor Gus Booth told his congregation, “We need to vote for the most righteous of candidates. And it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that out. The most righteous is John McCain.”

• New Life Church, West Bend, Wisc.: Speaking from the pulpit, Pastor Luke Emrich said, “I’m telling you straight up I would choose life. I would cast a vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin.”

• First Southern Baptist Church, Buena Park, Calif.: The Rev. Wiley Drake said, “I am angry because the government and the IRS and some Christians have taken away the rights of pastors. I have a right to endorse anybody I doggone well please. And if they don’t like that, too bad…. According to my Bible and in my opinion, there is no way in the world a Christian can vote for Barack Hussein Obama. Mr. Obama is not standing up for anything that is tradition in America.”

Two of the pastors on the list – Booth and Drake – are repeat offenders. Americans United reported Booth in June for informing his congregation that they could not vote for Obama and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton. (Booth sent a copy of a newspaper article about the sermon to Americans United after hearing about AU’s church politicking complaints with the IRS.) Drake was reported in August of 2007 for endorsing Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee on a church-affiliated radio program.

Both men remain unrepentant. In the days leading up to Sept. 28, Booth gave several media interviews, boasting about what he intended to do.

“If we can tell you what to do in the bedroom, we can certainly tell you what to do in the voting booth,” Booth told Religion News Service Sept. 25. “The voting booth is not some sort of sacred cow that you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to bring the gospel into every area of life.”

Booth, in fact, seemed to relish his 15 minutes of fame. His small congregation, located in far northern Minnesota near the Canadian border, would not under normal circumstances attract national attention. After being reported to the IRS by Americans United, Booth excitedly told the Grand Forks Herald, “I have been fielding phone calls all day. I’m supposed to be on Fox News again tonight!”

Drake, who also basked in the media spotlight, employed his usual strategy: praying down curses on his foes. When he learned that AU had once again reported him to the IRS, the controversial California cleric called on supporters to use “imprecatory prayers” (prayers that bad things will happen) against the staff of Americans United.

On Sept. 29, Drake – who acted on his own and was not an official part of the ADF gambit – issued an e-mail to supporters titled “IMPRECATORY is now our Duty Against Americans United.”

The message read in part, “John Calvin gave the church it’s (sic) marching orders from Scripture. The righteous have dominion, but only through imprecatory prayer against the ungodly. David as our Old testament (sic) shepherd gives us many Imprecatory prayers, and can be found to be in best focus in Psalm 109.” (For good measure, Drake noted that Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn “is ordained by the same group as Jeremiah Wright.”)

Other ADF-aligned pastors took less inflammatory approaches but still insisted that pulpit endorsements are within their rights. Georgia pastor Hice, appearing on CNN Sept. 26, said, “I’ll be endorsing McCain, but again strictly because of – not his party – but because of where he stands on biblical issues.”

Four days after the initial complaints were filed, AU sent another to the IRS reporting the Rev. Dan Fisher of Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon, Okla. On Oct. 1, Fisher’s church sent out a press release trumpeting his endorsement of McCain during “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

“After comparing and contrasting the candidates’ views with the Bible, Pastor Fisher unabashedly proclaimed that he believes Christians cannot, in good faith, vote for Barack Obama and must cast their votes in favor of John McCain,” read the news release.

Pastors like Fisher, Drake, Hice and Booth had plenty of opposition. As word of the ADF gambit spread, religious leaders began speaking out – and many denounced the ADF’s stunt.

The Rev. Eric Williams of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio, received a letter from the Alliance Defense Fund in May asking him to take part in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Williams was taken aback.

“My initial reaction to the ADF’s invitation was to think, ‘Who would be crazy enough to do that?’” Williams recalls. “That’s not legal; that’s not what the church is about. That’s not something I’d ever do; that’s crazy!”

Williams, who has been a vocal critic of the Religious Right in Ohio, decided the ADF action looked serious enough to warrant a formal response. On Aug. 7, he sent a letter to fellow Ohio clergy, urging them to publicly denounce the ADF’s ploy. Working with other ministers, Williams even wrote to the IRS, arguing that the organization was urging pastors to break the law and ought to have its own tax exemption examined.

A month later, Williams and an interfaith gathering of clergy called a press conference to again criticize the ADF. The Ohio pastor announced that he would counter the Religious Right effort by encouraging clergy nationwide to use their pulpits on Sept. 21 to preach about the importance of church-state separation and non-partisanship in the pulpit.

“I clearly understand the goal of the ADF’s Pulpit Initiative is that of tearing down the historic church-state wall that protects our ‘first freedoms’ of conscience, speech and religion,” Williams told Church & State. “I worry that this effort is motivated by a desire to gain legislative influence through the ballot box in order to impose specific religious values on our society as a whole. If this were to happen, our nation would eventually replace the freedoms of democracy with the tyrannies of Christian theocracy.”

In Duluth, Minn., Pastor Bob Aspling of Crown Christian Family Church received information about the event but declined to join in.

“I don’t see the wisdom in it,” Aspling told the Duluth News Tribune. “I think it’s kind of foolish.”

The Rev. Creede Hinshaw of Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah, Ga., was so disturbed by the plan that he blasted the ADF in a column in the Savannah Morning News.

“Such a plan is foolhardy and ill-advised,” Hinshaw wrote. “The wall of separation between church and state is already porous, but this action, if successful, could cause a disastrous flood. The average American worshiper does not want to drive into the church parking lot to be assaulted by campaign signs endorsing a candidate for mayor or president.”

Continued Hinshaw, “The ADF’s plan may be workable in congregations composed of 100 percent Republicans or Democrats. But most congregations, cherishing their diversity, want nothing to do with such stale and boring uniformity. The New Testament church was composed beautifully of slave and free, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, Greek and Roman, male and female, bound only out of their faith in Jesus and his imperishable kingdom.”

In Miami, Roman Catholic Archbishop John C. Favalora issued a statement repudiating “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

“Needless to say, none of our Catholic churches or priests will be participating in this initiative,” Favalora wrote. “For one thing, we can do a lot for our communities with the money we save by being tax-exempt. That is why we accept that status and agree to abide by IRS rules that ban religious organizations from becoming involved in partisan politics.”

The archbishop continued, “[T]he role of the church is not to be like the ‘party boss’ who goes around telling people how to vote. Our responsibility is to remind people to vote wisely; to reveal to them the wisdom of Scripture, the wisdom of the church’s moral tradition, so that they can base their votes on solid moral ground.”

Several conservative Christians also spoke out. Jonathan Falwell, son of the late Religious Right godfather Jerry Falwell, told the Lynchburg News & Advance, “I don’t intend to endorse anyone. I don’t think it’s my role to be telling anyone who to vote for.”

Jay Sekulow, TV preacher Pat Robertson’s top attorney, said his American Center for Law and Justice would be happy to defend any church that lost its tax-exempt status for politicking but quickly added that he does not recommend pastors deliberately violate the law.

Rich Cizik, a top official at the National Association of Evangelicals, was also leery.

“I do know it’s true the people in the pews get their cues from the pulpit, but I don’t think that we should endorse candidates,” Cizik told the Colorado Independent. “I don’t think that churches were created to be grist in the machinery of politics. I tell people to resist the political temptation to endorse candidates. I don’t think that attempting to yank the IRS’s chain is prudent, nor do I think it’s particularly ethical.”

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas was also not impressed with the ADF effort. Despite his long pedigree as a social conservative, Thomas blasted the right-wing legal organization in a column that ran just after “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

Reflecting on why people go to church, Thomas wrote, “It is not, or should not be, in order to pledge allegiance to a party, candidate or earthly agenda. One can spend inordinate amounts of time on that subject simply by watching cable TV, or listening to talk radio, or reading the newspapers. No matter how hard they try to protect the gospel from corruption, ministers who focus on politics and politicians as a means of redemption must minimize their ultimate calling and message.”

As opposition mounted, Ohio pastor Williams and fellow activists decided to turn up the heat on the ADF. Williams and his wife, Leslie Kern, reached out to Marcus Owens, former head of the exempt organizations division of the IRS, to see what else could be done.

Owens, now in private practice, mulled over the question for a few days and recommended filing a complaint against the ADF for violating Circular 230, a set of professional guidelines that govern tax attorneys. Owens enlisted two other highly placed former IRS officials, Mort Caplin, and Cono R. Namorato, to sign the letter.

ADF attorneys, the three charged in a letter to Michael Chesman, director of the IRS Office of Personal Responsibility, had engaged in “incompetent and disreputable conduct” by encouraging potential clients to break the law.

Stung by the allegations, the ADF quickly began adding a short disclaimer to its letters promoting “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” insisting that none of its advice was intended to violate IRS standards. The group vowed to press ahead.

Public opinion began turning against the group as well. In September, LifeWay Research released a new poll showing large numbers opposed to pulpit politicking. LifeWay, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, reported that 75 percent of Americans do not believe “it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office” and that 87 percent do not “believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service.”

One reason Americans oppose church electioneering is that they dislike clerics who presume the right to tell others how to vote. In some fundamentalist churches, however, this practice is common.

The Washington Post reported on the Rev. Ron Johnson Jr. of Living Stones Church in Crown Point, Ind., who railed against Obama’s stand on abortion during “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

Reported The Post, “Asked why he felt the need to discuss the candidates by name and to be explicit in rejecting Obama and his pro-choice views, Johnson said he must connect the dots because he is not sure that all members of his congregation can do so on their own.”

What does the ADF hope to achieve? The group insists it wants to spark a new test case in the courts. During the “Values Voter Summit” in Washington in September, ADF attorneys Benjamin Bull and Erik Stanley said they will argue in court that the IRS regulations banning pulpit politicking infringe on freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The tactic has been tried once before without success. In 2000, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously in Branch Ministries v. Rosotti that the IRS acted within its power when it revoked the tax exemption of a New York church that in October of 1992 placed a full-page ad in USA Today telling people not to vote for Bill Clinton. (The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton was defended unsuccessfully by attorneys with Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice.)

Bull and Stanley also insisted that tax exemption is a constitutional right. The concept of tax exemption, however, is not mentioned in the Constitution, and in the Branch Ministries case, the appeals court specifically rejected the ACLJ’s contention that the IRS has no authority over the tax-exempt status of churches, calling it “more creative than persuasive.”

For many members of the clergy, the legal issue, while compelling, is only one of the reasons they steer clear of pulpit politicking. They note that introducing partisan politics from the pulpit can divide congregations and serve as a distraction.

“The role of religion in our society – to bring lasting and transforming change, both personally and communally – is always greater than any single candidate, party or election,” observes UCC pastor Williams. “For leaders and communities of faith to lose perspective of God’s long-term reign of peace with justice by focusing on a single candidate is not only illegal but also shortsighted.”

In Washington, D.C., the Rev. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, a group that represents moderate Baptists who support church-state separation, blasted “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” in a press release.

“In every church I know of it would be like setting off a bombshell in the sanctuary for the preacher to tell the congregants how to pull the lever in the voting booth,” Walker asserted. “It would be incredibly corrosive of the church’s true mission to spread the gospel and be salt and light in the culture. As soon as the church throws in with a particular candidate or party, its prophetic edge is blunted. You can’t raise a prophet’s fist at a candidate or party when, with the other arm, you are locked in a tight bear hug.”

That’s exactly what happened in one Texas church in August. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Pastor Gary Simons of High Point Church in Arlington attacked Obama during a sermon about abortion, comparing the Illinois senator to the infamous King Herod of the Bible, who ordered male babies killed in an effort to slay the infant Jesus.

Several congregants walked out.

“I felt he basically endorsed John McCain,” Leslie Curd told the newspaper. “He said that if you vote for Obama, you’re guilty by association of killing babies like he wants to do.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said church electioneering has gone too far. Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, noted that last month, Americans United sent letters to churches nationwide, reminding pastors of the IRS regulations and urging them to keep their pulpits free of partisan politicking.

Lynn said AU’s Legal Department will continue monitoring developments. Should the ADF be successful in getting a new challenge to the IRS regulations into the federal courts, AU will intervene at the appropriate time. (The organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Branch Ministries case.)

Until then, Lynn and Americans United see education as key. The group continues to work through the media to spread the message of the dangers of pulpit politicking. Lynn and Sekulow debated the issue on the popular Web site Beliefnet.com, and Lynn engaged in a week-long back-and-forth debate on church politicking with the ADF’s Stanley on the Web site of the Los Angeles Times.

“Americans go to church for spiritual reasons, not to get a list of political endorsements,” Lynn observed in a Sept. 8 press statement. “The Alliance Defense Fund ought to be ashamed of itself for attempting to drag churches into partisan politics.”