By Joseph L. Conn
When Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park to the Internal Revenue Service last August for electioneering, its flamboyant pastor was unrepentant.
“I have never been worried about the IRS,” the Rev. Wiley S. Drake told the Los Angeles Times. “They don’t scare me. I don’t give a rip about the IRS.
“I don’t believe in the separation of church and state,” the California preacher blustered, “and I believe the IRS should stay out of church business.”
Unfortunately for Drake, monitoring allegations of illegal partisan politicking by tax-exempt groups is part of the business of the IRS, and the preacher is now under scrutiny.
In February, WorldNetDaily reported that First Southern Baptist is under investigation by the federal tax agency. The right-wing online journal said the IRS, in a Feb. 5 letter, notified the pastor that a church tax inquiry is under way.
Reporters say the normally loquacious Drake is now declining most news media interviews on the advice of his attorneys. Instead, the Alliance Defense Fund, a prominent Religious Right legal group, is speaking out on his behalf.
ADF lawyer Erik Stanley told WorldNetDaily that the IRS cited allegations that Drake had endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in an e-mail to followers on church letterhead and in comments on a church-based radio program.
Stanley traced the charges to Americans United.
“If anybody has been Big-Brotherish, it’s Americans United,” he told the journal. “They got the press release. They were the ones listening to his show, taping it and sending the tapes of his radio show to the IRS.”
Stanley suggested that AU is attempting to intimidate pastors to keep them from speaking out freely on issues.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said the ADF attorney is off base.
“Stanley is wrong on both counts,” said Lynn. “We support the right of clergy to speak out on issues, but they simply cannot endorse candidates using church resources. Furthermore, it’s not ‘Big-Brotherish’ to ask pastors to obey the law.”
Lynn added that he is delighted that the federal agency has responded to AU’s complaint.
“I commend the IRS for investigating Pastor Drake’s flagrant abuse of church resources,” said Lynn, who is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “This is a clear signal to clergy that the IRS is serious about enforcing federal tax law.
“When Religious Right operatives try to enlist churches in partisan political machines, they are putting those congregations’ tax exemptions at risk,” he continued. “Americans go to church to grow spiritually, not be lectured on which political candidate to vote for.”
Drake is a prominent pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. He recently completed a term as second vice president of the group, its third highest post. He currently is running for president of the denomination, which became increasingly political after a fundamentalist takeover in the 1980s.
Following Americans United’s complaint to the IRS, Drake lashed out with a press release urging his supporters to pray for the destruction of Americans United and two of its staff members.
In his Aug. 14 missive, issued on church letterhead, Drake said, “In light of recent attacks from the ememies [sic] of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer. Especially against Americans United for Seperation [sic] of Church and State…. Specifically target [AU staff members] Joe Conn or Jeremy Learing [sic].”
Imprecatory prayers are curses that ask God to strike down foes. Drake provided some examples of imprecatory prayers from the Bible for his followers to emulate.
“Let his days be few; and let another take his office,” Drake wrote, quoting Psalm 109. “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg.”
On Feb. 14, Drake reissued his call for death prayers against AU.
As part of its Project Fair Play, Americans United educates clergy about the federal tax law ban on electioneering by tax-exempt groups. When flagrant abuses occur, AU files complaints with the IRS. The project, like Americans United, is completely non-partisan.
Candidates may speak in churches under certain circumstances, AU notes, but clergy must never give an official endorsement to them.
In an election season where religion and politics have intermingled rather promiscuously, Americans United staff members have found themselves busy.
Here are some other recent examples:
•In January, Americans United filed a complaint with the IRS about partisan politicking by the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ in Las Vegas, Nev. According to news accounts, the Rev. Leon Smith stood in the pulpit Jan. 13 – just six days before the Nevada caucuses – and said, “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.”
Smith added, “If you can’t support your own, you’re never going to get anywhere.... I want to see this man in office.”
In case the sermon left any doubt about where the church stood, Obama himself addressed the congregation later that day in a “surprise” appearance.
•Americans United has cautioned the top official of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that using his denominational news agency to oppose Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani raises federal tax law issues.
In a Jan. 24 letter, AU’s Lynn advised SBC President Frank Page that the Internal Revenue Code prohibits the use of tax-exempt resources to support or oppose candidates for public office.
Americans United acted after learning of a Jan. 21 analysis distributed by Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news agency. The analysis stated in part, “Page said he agrees with James Dobson of Focus on the Family that a united front against Giuliani is needed and that ‘evangelicals can realistically defeat him.’ Even a ticket with Giuliani on top and Huckabee for vice president ‘would be problematic for Dr. Dobson and myself,’ Page said.”
•Americans United urged an Alabama political group that has endorsed U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for president to drop its plan to distribute Democratic Party sample ballots in churches.
In a Dec. 11 letter to Dr. Joe Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, Lynn wrote, “Obviously there is no problem with handing the sample ballot to voters as they approach the polls. But passing them out in houses of worship is a big potential problem for the churches”
The plan was outlined earlier in a Washington Post story. The story said that the ADC intends to distribute the sample ballots in churches the Sunday before Alabama’s Democratic primary on Feb. 5.
After the advisory letter, AU received no reports of ADC misuse of churches for electioneering during the primary.
•Americans United issued a statement in January challenging grossly inaccurate information about church-based politicking in a full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal.
A Wisconsin church and a Religious Right legal group claimed in the Jan. 16 ad that the Internal Revenue Service is misinterpreting federal tax law to censor sermons about political figures and political issues. The Becket Fund placed the ad on behalf of Pastor Kenneth D. Taylor of Calvary Assembly of God Church in Algoma, Wisc.
In the ad, which takes the form of an open letter, Taylor mocks the IRS and dares the federal agency to investigate his church for a supposedly political sermon he delivered in 2006.
Americans United says the ad is based on inaccurate information and could lead unwary religious groups to violate federal tax law, encounter fines and lose their tax exemptions.
“The Becket Fund ought to be ashamed of itself,” said AU’s Lynn. “The lawyers at Becket may think this ad is a cute stunt, but it really isn’t. This issue concerns the integrity of our houses of worship and fairness in the political process. This isn’t something to trifle with.”