Political Preacher Spars With Federal Tax Agency Over No-Politicking Rule

Evangelist Bill Keller of St. Petersburg, Fla., says he wants the Internal Revenue Service to make a decision about the legality of his partisan political activities.

Keller, who broadcasts on the radio and runs a Web site called liveprayer.com, ran into trouble last year when he posted a column online telling people that voting for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was the same as voting for Satan. Americans United reported Keller to the IRS and requested an investigation of his actions.

The St. Petersburg Times reported recently that Keller has been contacted by the IRS and asked to supply information about his political activities. He was asked, among other things, for information about his board of directors and if he writes his own material.

The defiant Keller responded with a letter demanding to know the status of the investigation. He said the IRS has not replied.

“If the IRS thinks I violated my exemption, let them have the guts to take away my exemption,” Keller told WorldNetDaily, a right-wing Web site. “Then we’ll go to federal court and we’ll fight this out there. But they refuse to make a decision. All they’re doing is harassing me with this incredible administrative action that’s just crippling.”

Americans United’s involvement with Keller began on May 31, 2007, when the organization reported him to the IRS. Federal law prohibits non-profit groups from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. AU asserts that Keller ran afoul of this standard when he posted a “Daily Devotional” on liveprayer.com on May 11 titled, “If You Vote for Mitt Romney You are Voting for Satan.”

The devotional was a two-and-half page screed attacking Romney, who at the time was seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency. One section read, “If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for satan! This message today is not about Mitt Romney. Romney is an unashamed and proud member of the Mormon cult founded by a murdering polygamist pedophile named Joseph Smith nearly 200 years ago.”

Another passage read, “Having Romney as President is no different than having a Muslim or Scientologist as President. Please, don’t tell me that Mitt Romney is the best option. I’ll stay home and not vote before I will vote for satan, since if you vote for Romney you are voting for satan!”

Keller insists he was not intervening in the election. He says he was simply educating voters about the candidate’s religious beliefs.  

His attorney, David Gibbs, also insists Keller has done nothing wrong.  

“I don’t see political involvement,” Gibbs told the newspaper. “I see someone who is aggressively speaking in the religious educational realm.”

Erik Stanley, a senior attorney at the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), also came to Keller’s defense.  

“If the IRS does respond, obviously the issue will go to court. And, for the first time, the federal court will be able to judge the constitutionality of this restriction.”

Americans United pointed out that the federal courts have already weighed in on this issue – and the ADF’s side lost. In 1992, Americans United reported the Church at Pierce Creek, a congregation near Binghamton, N.Y., that placed a full-page ad in USA Today advising people that voting for Bill Clinton was a sin.

The IRS pulled the church’s tax exemption. The church enlisted the help of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice to get it back but lost in court. (Branch Ministries v. Rosotti)