Bully Pulpit

Americans United Files IRS Complaint Against Iowa Church Over Statewide Scheme To Intervene In Judicial Election

The Rev. Cary K. Gordon of Cornerstone World Outreach Church in Sioux City, Iowa, is furious that the Iowa Supreme Court voted unanimously in 2009 to strike down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

So Gordon came up with a plan: In Iowa, justices on the seven-member high court must take part in retention elections every eight years. Three justices appeared on the ballot this month, and the Pentecostal pastor in September began urging clergy across the state to use their pulpits to demand that their congregations vote against the judicial candidates.

The church-sponsored scheme – dubbed “Project Jeremiah” – has one drawback: It is a violation of federal law, which bars churches and other non-profit groups from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates. Gordon knows this, but he doesn’t care.

“Pastors who join this effort are asked to commit to confront the injustice and ungodly decisions of the Iowa Supreme Court by boldly calling upon their flocks to ‘vote no on judicial retention’ for the three consecutive Sundays prior to Election Day,” wrote Gordon in a letter to over 1,000 clergy across the state.

Gordon, who calls himself “pastoral liaison to civil government,” vowed that the Texas-based Liberty Institute would defend any church accused of breaking the law. For good measure, he asserted that the idea that churches should stay out of politics comes from Adolf Hitler.

“Secular fundamentalists in the United States know the same thing Hitler knew,” wrote Gordon. “The only thing that stands in their way of a total takeover of our American culture, the final removal of any mention of God from the public arena, and the shredding of the last remains of our Judeo-Christian value system, is the church of Jesus Christ.”

The mass mailing from Gordon’s church ended up in the hands of some pastors who disagreed with his militant call to political arms. One of them sent the missive to Americans United, which on Sept. 30 filed a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service.

“Not only has Cornerstone Church violated the law by opposing judges on the ballot, it is working to draft other churches into its electioneering scheme,” wrote Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn to Lois Lerner, director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the IRS.

Contacted by media in the area, Gordon was defiant – and a little over the top.

“The orthodox Christian pastors of Iowa do not and cannot recognize, with regard to the definition of marriage, the imaginary authority of the Iowa Supreme Court,” Gordon wrote in a rambling e-mail statement. “History has already shown who inevitably wins when state wages war against the authority of the church of the living God. So let the battle between state and church begin.”

Elsewhere in the statement, which was headlined “A Pastoral Letter to a Kangaroo Court,” Gordon asserted, “Based upon the arguments posed by those who support gay marriage, it is a strong possibility that some of our Supreme Court justices do not believe in a God.”

Gordon has also told several reporters that he prays, “Dear God, please allow the IRS to attack my church, so I can take them all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Gordon’s intervention in an election isn’t surprising. He has long been active in local politics in Sioux City. He runs a Cornerstone-affiliated group called the PeaceMakers Institute, which holds 501(c)(4) status, enabling it to be more political. He has also formed a political action committee called Sioux Citizens for Responsible Government that has intervened in local elections.

Earlier this year some Sioux City residents expressed alarm after it was reported that five of the 11 members of the city’s Human Rights Commission were either members or former members of Cornerstone.

Another evangelical minister who joined the anti-judge crusade in Iowa is Jeff Mullen, senior pastor of Point of Grace Church in Waukee. He was so upset that an Americans United supporter sent him a letter reminding him that churches may not endorse candidates that he created a You Tube video to denounce the missive. (The letter, which was posted on AU’s site projectfairplay.org, advises pastors not to listen to Religious Right groups that seek to politicize their pulpits. It points out that pulpit politicking is illegal and lists resources available from the IRS.)

Waving the AU letter, Mullen told viewers, “The letter itself is threatening in tone – and basically tells how all sorts of bad things will happen if you engage your congregation to participate with the rest of the community at the ballot box.”

Mullen has launched a special Web site attacking the Iowa jurists – IowaPastors.com. He is also working with the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a new group launched by former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed.

But not every Iowa pastor is buying into the rhetoric of Gordon and Mullen. The Rev. Dan Lozer, who pastors United Church of Christ congregations in Sioux City and Hawarden, told the Sioux City Journal that he received Gordon’s letter but didn’t even finish it.

Lozer said churches that want to endorse or oppose candidates should surrender their tax exemption.

Kristie Arlt, a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sioux City, told the Journal she had not seen the letter but that the Catholic hierarchy would remain focused on issues, not candidates.

The ruckus in Iowa is not an isolated incident. In Oklahoma, Baptist pastor Paul Blair has also been openly defying the law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. In 2008, Blair told congregants that he supported U.S. Sen. John McCain for president. In September of this year, Blair struck again, advising his flock to support Republican Mary Fallin for governor.

Blair’s electioneering stunt was part of a larger effort sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) to prod pastors to intervene in partisan politics.

The ADF, a Religious Right legal outfit founded by television and radio preachers in 1993, calls the scheme “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The group insists that pastors have the right to be partisan in the pulpit and urges them to openly break the law. On Sept. 26, about 100 pastors allegedly took part.

Americans United takes a dim view of the ADF’s gambit. When word of Blair’s endorsement reached the media, AU filed a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service.

“When churches become cogs in any candidate’s political machine, they ought to lose their tax exemption,” said AU’s Lynn. “I urge the IRS to investigate this matter and apply the law.”

Although the ADF trumpeted the number of pastors taking part, it was unclear exactly how far-reaching the Sept. 26 event was or what went on in some churches. Several participating pastors told the media they merely addressed issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, which is legal.

In Indiana, the ADF listed six churches as taking part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. But WRTV, a television station in Indianapolis, contacted all of them and only one pastor would confirm that he participated.

In South Dakota, the ADF listed the Church at the Gate in Sioux Falls as a participant. But Pastor Steve Hickey told the Rapid City Journal he did not endorse any candidates that Sunday.

Blair, however, did not waffle. The Oklahoma preacher not only confirmed his participation, he dismissed AU’s complaint, insisting that he was never sanctioned by the IRS for his 2008 endorsement.

“In two years, we haven’t heard anything from them,” Blair said. “Obviously, if we were doing something illegal we would have heard from them. We haven’t.”

AU’s Lynn said the situation is not that simple. In fact, the IRS has been restructuring its internal policies for dealing with church audits – a crucial first step for any investigation of a house of worship. A Minnesota church that was being investigated by the IRS for financial irregularities successfully sued the tax agency a few years ago, asserting that it had not followed proper procedures for authorizing church audits.

After that ruling, the IRS announced new guidelines for examining houses of worship. The guidelines are still in play and, once implemented, could allow the IRS to proceed with investigating congregations like Blair’s.

If that happens, the ADF has vowed to defend Blair in court. In fact, the ADF hopes to spark a new test case and challenge federal tax law in court.

The IRS is apparently keeping an eye on things. The tax agency is notoriously reticent about commenting publicly on specific allegations of pulpit politicking, but a recent ABC News.com story on Pulpit Freedom Sunday quoted Robert Marvin, an IRS spokesman.

“We are aware of recent press reports,” he said, “and will monitor the situation and take action as appropriate.”

The ADF often insists that no church has ever lost its tax exemption for pulpit politicking. But that’s a misleading assertion. In 1992, the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., placed a full-page ad in USA Today telling people that it was a sin to vote for Bill Clinton for president.

Americans United reported the church to the IRS, which yanked its tax-exempt status. The church, represented by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, sued the IRS but lost.

The case, Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2000. The court ruled unanimously against the church.

Although it is eager to get a new case in the legal pipeline, the ADF on its blog attacked Americans United for reporting Blair.

“It’s ironic that a group that has ‘separation of church and state’ in its name would argue and agitate for government-controlled churches,” asserted ADF attorney Erik Stanley. “AU wants pervasive and ongoing monitoring and surveillance of churches by the IRS. That’s not separation of church and state no matter how you look at it.”

In fact, Americans United simply wants churches to obey the law – just as every other non-profit in the country does.

AU believes the law should be applied even-handedly. Last month, the group reported Brown Memorial Baptist Church in New York City to the IRS after the congregation held what amounted to a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo. Pastor Clinton M. Miller also endorsed Cuomo from the pulpit.

In addition, AU reported a Minnesota church, Berean Bible Baptist Church in Hastings, whose pastor, Brad Brandon, endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and several other candidates.

The overwhelming majority of pastors don’t behave like this. Although estimates vary, the number of houses of worship in the United States probably tops 300,000. (Two scholars put the number at 331,000 in 2006.) They range from storefront churches with a handful of members to suburban mega-churches that attract thousands. In the light of numbers like this, the 100 churches the ADF drummed up for its stunt isn’t even a drop in the bucket.

Why are so many pastors not interested in joining forces with the ADF? Some may worry about crossing the IRS, but in all likelihood the reason is more prosaic: congregants don’t support pulpit politicking.

A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 70 percent of Americans “oppose churches and houses of worship endorsing specific candidates for public office.” The survey also showed that more than half of every major religious group opposed such endorsements.

Seventy percent is the highest this number has been since Pew began asking this question about a decade ago.

Most clergy are also aware that their congregations contain members of various political persuasions. Relatively few pastors want to risk alienating congregants and dividing their flocks by endorsing candidates. (In 2004, a Baptist pastor in North Carolina named Chan Chandler told his congregation that members who had supported John Kerry for president should quit. Instead, the congregation decided Chandler should leave.)

And, despite all of the ADF’s fulminating about pastors being “gagged” or “muzzled,” many religious leaders say they can’t fathom why they would want to link their churches to a political campaign.

Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, told Associated Baptist Press that the ADF stunt is “misguided” and “unnecessarily divisive.” He called it a threat to the integrity of the church.

“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 said. “It would be incredibly corrosive of the church’s true mission to spread the gospel and be salt and light in the culture.”

Added Walker, “As soon as the church throws in with a particular candidate or party, its prophetic edge is blunted.”