Americans United has called on the Internal Revenue Service to investigate a North Carolina church whose pastor garnered national headlines after he expelled several Democrats from the congregation.
The expulsion of nine Democrats by Pastor Chan Chandler of the East Waynesville Baptist Church in Waynesville, N.C., captured national headlines in early May, but Americans United noted that move was merely indicative of a larger pattern of partisan political activity at the church.
Chandler had apparently saturated his pulpit with partisan politics during the 2004 election season. Several newspapers and television stations reported that on Oct. 3, 2004, Chandler told his congregation, “If you vote for John Kerry, you need to repent or resign.” Church members told the media that prior to the election, Chandler frequently endorsed President George W. Bush from the pulpit and attacked Kerry.
“Pastor Chandler seems to have confused his church with a Republican Party caucus meeting,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It’s time for the IRS to give him a swift reminder of the laws of the land.”
Section 26 U.S.C. 501 (c) (3) of the tax code states that houses of worship and other non-profits may “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
In a May 9 letter to the IRS, Americans United requested an investigation of the matter. AU noted that during a May 8 sermon, Chandler was unapologetic for supporting and opposing candidates from the pulpit and promised to keep doing it.
“I believe it is obvious that Pastor Chandler has openly defied federal tax law and is vowing to do so again,” Lynn wrote. “I also believe the IRS cannot afford to ignore such blatant disregard for our nation’s tax laws, as it sends a signal to other religious leaders that they too can engage in partisan politicking from the pulpit without fear of sanction.”
Chandler’s action against the Democrats sparked spirited debate inside the church. Reportedly, 40 of the church’s 100 members walked out in protest. The story circulated nationally, and Chandler drew heavy criticism. Even conservatives who routinely defend the mixing of church and state refused to support him.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said congregations have the right to decide membership requirements for their churches but added, “I believe it would never – never – be appropriate for a local Baptist church to decide membership based upon how a person votes.”
On May 10, church members met with Chandler to discuss his actions. He ended up resigning, and according to an account from an attendee, several members announced that they were leaving the church as well.
In an interview with Baptist Press, Chandler defended his actions. He insisted that he had never endorsed a candidate from the pulpit, although he acknowledged that he did criticize some candidates.
“But those were negative endorsements – never a positive endorsement,” he said.
Americans United pointed out that the IRS Code makes no such distinction. It prohibits churches from endorsing or attacking candidates.
AU also said that incidents like this will only become more common if Congress rewrites the tax code to permit houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking. A proposal that would do this (H.R. 235), introduced by U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), is pending in the House of Representatives. It remains unclear if the measure will see movement this year.