January 17, 2008

Watchdog Group Asks IRS to Investigate Pulpit Endorsement

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog group, has sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service asking the agency to investigate a preacher’s apparent endorsement of a presidential candidate. Under federal law, nonprofit organizations are not allowed to engage in partisan political activity and could lose tax-exempt status for violations.

Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat from Illinois, made an appearance at the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ, in Las Vegas, on Sunday, six days before Nevada’s political caucus on the 19th. According to The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that the church’s pastor, Leon Smith, then made a number of political comments, including, “I want to see this man in office.”

The Review-Journal also quotes Mr. Smith as saying, “The more he [Obama] speaks, the more he wins my confidence, and … if the polls were open today, I would cast my vote for this senator.” The church could not be reached for comment in the article.

The IRS has sternly reminded nonprofit groups that it will monitor political campaigning by charities in 2008.

However, one church has recently decided to fight against what it feels are unnecessary and mistaken constraints on pastors. The Calvary Assembly of God Church, in Algoma, Wis., ran an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week. The ad, written in the form of a letter to the IRS, opened with the pronouncement, “we’re writing today to call your bluff.”

The church’s pastor, Kenneth D. Taylor, then challenges the IRS to investigate sermons he delivered around Election Day in 2006. The Cavalry church was supported in its effort by the Beckett Fund, a nonprofit group that advocates for religious free expression.

In framing his challenge, Mr. Taylor invoked the example of All Saints Episcopal Church, in California, which the IRS investigated for political activity from 2004. The agency ruled in 2007 that All Saints had violated federal law but did not punish the church. All Saints has sought an explanation and an apology.

That lack of punishment emboldened Mr. Taylor, who writes, “You’ve all but admitted that you can’t enforce these rules. But we’re unhappy to see that you’re still saying you have a right to censor sermons.” He adds later, “I challenge you — if you still think it’s the law — to investigate what I preached.”