In 2006, Pastor Mac Hammond stood up before his Living Word Christian Center audience in Brooklyn Park and said, “I can tell you personally that I’m going to vote for Michele Bachmann, because I’ve come to know her, what she stands for.” That speech prompted the attention of the Internal Revenue Service for violation of the church’s tax exempt status. The IRS sent the church a letter telling the church it cannot endorse politicians from the pulpit. Despite ample evidence that suggested Hammond knew that what he was doing was illegal, the case was closed.
Now an Arizona-based front group for the religious empire of James (Focus on the Family) Dobson, the Alliance Defense Fund, is encouraging en masse violation of the IRS rule that prohibits clergy from endorsing political candidates. They’re asking ministers of kindred spirit across the country to endorse presidential candidates on Sunday, September 28.
Dubbed the “Pulpit Initiative,” the gambit represents a bet on lax enforcement by the IRS and, ultimately, a free-speech-based challenge to the law by a very conservative US Supreme Court.
Since 1954, churches have been prohibited from explicit involvement in political campaigns. To date, only one church in the last 50 years has lost its tax exemptions. That occurred in 1992, when an outfit called Branch Ministries took out full-page ads in the Washington Times and USA Today proclaiming, “Christian Beware” and warning that Bill Clinton espoused “policies that are in rebellion to God’s Laws.” Federal courts upheld the revocation of Branch Ministries’ tax status.
The ADF says the Pulpit Initiative is to encourage pastors to reclaim “their right to speak Scriptural truth from the pulpit” and to confront “an atmosphere of intimidation and fear for any church that dares to speak Scriptural truth about candidates for office.” The group says it has recruited churches in every state to endorse candidates on the chosen date.
But some clergy and former IRS officials say that ADF is violating the law just by organizing this sort of mass lawbreaking event.
“In the course of organizing and publicizing this event, ADF’s staff of attorneys is inducing churches to engage in conduct designed to violate Federal tax law in a direct and blatant manner,” wrote Mortimer M. Caplin, IRS commissioner during the Kennedy administration; Marcus S. Owens, former head of the IRS’s tax-exempt division; and Cono R. Namorato, the former head of the IRS office of professional responsibility. “This activity — coordinating mass violation of Federal tax law — is clearly ‘incompetent and disreputable conduct’… In our view, these ADF efforts present a direct threat to the integrity of our tax system.”
Beside Hammond’s 2006 endorsement of Bachmann, a northern Minnesota church made news this summer for endorsing Sen. John McCain for president — and flaunting it in the face of the IRS. Rev. Gus Booth, a pastor in Warroad, Minn., and Republican party activist, said in a May sermon, “If you are a Christian, you cannot support Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Both Hillary and Barack favor the shedding of innocent blood [abortion] and the legalization of the abomination of homosexual marriage.”
In a letter in his church bulletin, Booth wrote of the IRS, “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.”
According to IRS data, it’s not just the religious right that runs afoul of the IRS. Of the 42 churches that were sent letters by the IRS in 2004, 18 endorsed a GOP candidate, 12 a Democratic and one a Green Party candidate. In 11 instances, the IRS did not determine a party affiliation.
A church in Southern California made news in 2004 when its pastor offered an anti-war sermon and the IRS pursued the case. The church insisted that it did not endorse a candidate. The IRS agreed and dropped the case.
The IRS has also gone after an entire denomination. The tax agency is investigating the United Church of Christ because of a speech that Obama gave at that group’s national meeting last year. Obama is a member of the UCC.
The IRS is also investigating a Hartford, Conn., UCC church that Obama spoke at earlier this year.