Tax-Exempt Electionering?

Gay-Bashing Pastors' Obama Animus Crosses The IRS Line


It definitely was not a typical Mother’s Day sermon.

In a fiery May 13 address at Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, N.C., the Rev. Charles L. Worley insisted that God disapproves of homosexuality and called for gay people to be placed behind electrified fences in concentration camps and allowed to die out.

Worley also blasted President Barack Obama for his support of marriage equality for gay couples and reproductive rights.

“Of our president getting up and saying that it’s all right for two women to marry or two men to marry,” the pastor thundered, “I tell you right now I was disappointed bad. But I tell you right there that’s as sorry as you get. The Bible’s agin it, God’s agin it, I’m agin it and if you’ve got any sense, you’re agin it.”

Shortly afterward, Worley added, “Somebody said, ‘who you gonna vote for?’ I ain’t gonna vote for a baby killer and a homosexual lover. You said, ‘did you mean that?’ You better believe I did.”

Worley’s lengthy sermon received national media attention for its hateful attacks on the LGBT community, but it was also an apparent violation of federal tax law. On May 23, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service.

AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn noted that federal tax law forbids churches and other 501(c)(3) nonprofits to intervene in elections.

“When the top official of a religious organization – the chief pastor of the church – issues an appeal to congregants from the pulpit during a worship service in the strongest possible terms to vote against a candidate, it is clearly intervention in an election,” wrote Lynn.

In a media statement, Lynn observed, “Pastor Worley’s vicious and mean-spirited assault on gays and lesbians is bad enough. His pulpit command that people not vote for President Obama is a violation of federal tax law. I urge the IRS to act swiftly to investigate this matter.”

Worley’s intemperate remarks and his partisan intervention were widely covered by television, radio, internet and print news outlets.

In an appearance May 22 on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360°,” Lynn said Worley’s pulpit screed was clearly designed to goad congregants into voting against Obama.

“Look, unless you were asleep during the sermon – which has been known to happen, this went on for 90 minutes – you know unequivocally that you are not supposed to be voting for Barack Obama,” said Lynn. “This means it’s a clear violation of the tax code that says – again, without equivocation – you cannot oppose or endorse a candidate for public office and retain your tax-exempt status, whether you’re a church or any kind of charity. This isn’t even close, Anderson, to the line.”

Lynn noted that this is the third IRS complaint that Americans United has filed in recent weeks. In April, AU provided the federal tax agency with information about a Roman Catholic diocese in Illinois whose bishop compared Obama to Hitler and Stalin and urged parishioners to “vote their Cath­olic consciences” in the November election.

On May 21, AU complained about a Hager Hill, Ky., church whose pastor urged congregants to vote against Obama for supporting marriage equality.

During a May 13 service, Pastor Ron­nie Spriggs of Hager Hill Freewill Baptist Church, said, “You can say ‘that’s political’ if you want to and blame me if you want to, but I heard our president say something this week that I never thought I’d ever hear a president of the United States say.

“Did y’all hear that?” Spriggs continued. “He said that he believes that gays ought to have the right to marry in the United States. That’s the president of the United States who said that. Amen. I don’t know about you folks, but I’m going on record, and I don’t care who knows it. I want the guy out.”

Asserting that “this country can’t afford that kind of ideology in that office,” Spriggs went on to exhort his congregation to get active between now and the November election.

He added, “I want you to speak up in these next few months that are to come, and let’s not back this kind of ideology. Let’s get this out of the White House.”

In the interview with CNN’s Coop­er, Lynn emphasized that AU’s work is completely non-partisan and that the central issue is not clergy expression of opinions about issues but intervention in elections.

“If you want to talk about marriage equality and why it’s right or wrong and give every sermon from now until the end of time on that one subject, you can do that,” observed Lynn. “That does not violate the tax code. What violates the tax code is getting partisan, starting to say, ‘Well, now, you should vote for the Republican, you should vote for the Democrat, you should vote for somebody else.’”

Lynn said some people seem to think the Constitution grants tax exemption to churches. In fact, he noted, neither the Constitution, nor the Supreme Court, holds that religious institutions are entitled to tax-exempt status.

Lynn noted that the Alliance Defense Fund is actively campaigning for churches to violate tax law and endorse candidates in the November election. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based legal group, which was founded by TV and radio preachers,  is encouraging clergy to speak “biblical Truth about candidates and elections from their pulpits” on Oct. 12 as part of the ADF’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

ADF attorney Erick Stanley sprang to the defense of the Kentucky church that AU filed a complaint against.

“What this pastor did in Kentucky was nothing more than to exercise his constitutional right to speak freely from his pulpit,” Stanley told the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow. “No pastor anywhere should ever have to fear the IRS or Americans United or any other group for that matter when they stand and they speak biblical truth in the pulpit. That’s all this pastor was doing.”

Stanley said his group is committed to undoing the tax law mandate barring church involvement in elections. The provision has been in place since 1954, when Congress unanimously adopted it. The measure was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) who objected to electioneering activities by foundations and other tax-exempt entities.

“It has worked a great harm on the church,” Stanley told OneNewsNow, “and we have committed ourselves through our efforts at ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’ to make sure that the Johnson Amendment is declared unconstitutional, that it’s removed from the tax code and that it can no longer be used as an intimidation tool to silence pastors and churches.”

In fact, AU’s Lynn says most religious leaders oppose misuse of the pulpit for partisan ends and the ADF and other Religious Right groups are going against a strong tide of public opinion. By an overwhelming margin, Americans tell pollsters that they oppose intervention in elections by houses of worship.

Despite strong public disfavor, legislation that would allow tax-exempt groups to endorse candidates has been introduced in Congress. U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) is sponsoring H.R. 3600, a bill that would eliminate the tax code provision that bars all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt groups from electioneering. Cosponsors include Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Ill.), Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.).

The measure, which Jones has pushed unsuccessfully in the past, has been assigned to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, and its future is uncertain.

AU’s Lynn says the church electioneering issue is critically important to American freedoms.

“Religious Right strategists desperately want to forge conservative churches into a disciplined voting bloc and dominate the democratic process,” he said. “If they are successful, church-state separation would soon be a distant memory. We cannot allow them to politicize religion.”

Americans United’s Project Fair Play educates clergy about federal tax law and political activity. To learn more, visit the PFP website: http://projectfairplay.org/