Pastors challenge IRS rule with partisan talk

California WatchNovember 21, 2012 

Larry Ihrig, pastor of Celebration Christian Center in Livermore, began his Sunday sermon with the issue on everyone's mind: the outcome of the presidential election.

"Now, some of you may glory in the result, but I know some of you are disappointed," Ihrig told his evangelical Bay Area church after Election Day.

In the lead-up to the Nov. 6 presidential election, he was one of nearly 1,600 religious leaders around the country who talked politics from the pulpit as part of a conservative challenge to a 1954 federal law that bans churches from supporting candidates.

The Pulpit Freedom Sunday movement, organized by a Christian legal group in Arizona called Alliance Defending Freedom, encouraged pastors to "preach a biblically based sermon regarding candidates and the election without fearing that the IRS will investigate or punish the church," according to the group's website.

Evangelical pastors across the country posted videos on the Internet of their direct or thinly veiled political endorsements and sent letters to the Internal Revenue Service, daring the agency to revoke their tax-exempt status for political speech.

So far, nothing has happened.

"The intention of the separation of church and state wasn't the church's encroachment on government, but government's encroachment into the church," Ihrig said. "If I talk about an issue of the violation of biblical truth, then it ceases to be political. It's a spiritual issue."

The federal tax code says religious groups classified as tax-exempt entities are "absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating" in any political campaign or making statements favoring or opposing "any candidate for public office."

But in the 58 years the law has been on the books, the IRS has revoked a church's tax-exempt status for political involvement only once, according to agency records.

"Churches, as tax-exempt entities, have received a very lucrative benefit," said Rob Boston, senior policy analyst with the nonpartisan group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "One of the only conditions is not to intervene in partisan politics. That isn't too much to ask. Any church that really feels strongly could give up the tax exemption and be partisan and intervene in politics all day long."

It's unclear whether the IRS even investigates churches that appear to be violating the ban.

"There are lots of laws that aren't enforced," said Jesse Choper, a UC Berkeley law professor who specializes in church-state issues. "This is one of them."

The group spearheading the pulpit movement, the Alliance Defending Freedom, says it aims to transform the legal system to reclaim America from "radical anti-Christian groups" and debunk "the myth of the so-called separation of church and state."

In 2010, the group had a budget of $35 million to pay 44 in-house lawyers to defend religious test cases around the country free of charge, according to tax documents filed with the IRS.

California is one of the most active states in the preachers' movement. On Pulpit Freedom Sunday, 142 pastors around the state weighed in on politics despite the law.

In the remote desert community of California City in Kern County, Samuel A.L. Pope Sr., pastor of Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church, raged against President Barack Obama's energy policy, abortion rights stance and support of same-sex marriage.

"Barack Obama, that's who I'm talking about," Pope told his 40-member congregation in a sermon. "Don't vote for that man. He is not for you."

Organizers say they are deliberately thumbing their noses at the IRS in the hope of bringing a test case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We're showing the rest of the pastors in the country that they don't have to be afraid of any government limiting their political speech," said Chris Clark, pastor at the East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church in San Diego. "You're going to see a lot more boldness from the pulpit."

That worries the Wisconsin-based nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation, which filed a lawsuit against the IRS last week for failing to enforce political restrictions on religious organizations.

IRS spokesman David Tucker declined to say whether the agency investigates churches for politicking.

The only church to lose its tax-exempt status was the Church at Pierce Creek in New York, which placed full-page ads in newspapers in 1992 asserting that Bill Clinton's positions on abortion and homosexuality went against the Bible.

The last known investigation was in 2009, when the IRS audited the Living Word Christian Center in Minnesota after the pastor endorsed GOP congressional candidate Michele Bachmann. A federal court ruled against the IRS, saying it hadn't followed its own policy.

"Sooner or later, the IRS is going to have to act," Boston said. "If they don't, they're telling churches to do what they want. What's to stop churches from acting like PACs and being completely tax-exempt and political? That would be a disaster."

Editor's Note: Previous versions of this story online and in print misstated Larry Ihrig's position on the election. He did not publicly support Mitt Romney from the pulpit.

California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team, is part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. For more, visit www.californiawatch.org. Harris can be reached at aharris@cironline.org.

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