A record number of rogue Christian pastors are endorsing candidates from the pulpit this election cycle, using Sunday sermons to defiantly flout tax rules.
Their message to the IRS: Sue me.
But the tax agency is doing anything but. Although the IRS was sued itself for not enforcing the law and admitted about 100 churches may be breaking the rules, the pastors and their critics alike say the agency is looking the other way. The agency refuses to say if it is acting.
At the same time, the number of pastors endorsing candidates in what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday jumped from 33 people in 2008 to more than 1,600 this year, according to organizers, Alliance Defending Freedom. And this year, they’ve stepped up their drive, telling pastors to back candidates any Sunday up until the election, not just one Sunday as in past years.
The church leaders are jumping in high-profile races that will help decide the Senate and tight governor races across the country, endorsing candidates from Thom Tillis (R) over Sen. Kay Hagan (D) in North Carolina to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) over Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) in Kentucky.
Rev. Mark Cowart, pastor at Colorado Springs-based Church For All Nations, suggested good Christians should vote Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper out of office in an Oct. 19 sermon, where he endorsed his GOP rival, Bob Beauprez.
“Beauprez is against more gun control, does not support abortion and he does protect the man-woman marriage — that’s the one I’m voting for. … I’m endorsing biblical principles,” the preacher said in a video of the service, pacing a church stage and chopping his hand through the air for emphasis.
At issue is the churches’ tax break as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations. They don’t pay taxes, and donations to them can be deducted from contributors’ taxable income.
But with that break comes limits on political endorsements. Charities are barred from engaging in political campaigns.
So while pastors can discuss abortion, gay marriage and other controversial issues in their sermons, they’re not allowed to back candidates or use church money to fund campaign activities, and keep their tax break.
“You can’t have a tax-exempt entity engaged in politics because that involves using tax-exempt money for political purposes, so it’s an unfair playing field,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the organization that sued the IRS in 2012 for failing to enforce electioneering restrictions on churches. The group settled this summer with an understanding that the IRS would eventually take action.
So far there’s been no evidence they have.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in an interview last month with Tax Analysts suggested the IRS isn’t planning to crack down on churches anytime soon. He said the FFRF lawsuit news “spread out into the world … somehow we are doing something very different and we are going to show up either more aggressively or more often in a different way than we have in the past, and that is not what that case was about at all.”
It’s another sign of the tax agency turned upside down by the tea party targeting controversy. Although the IRS is under fire from the right for being heavy-hand with conservative tax-exempt entities, it’s also getting hit from the left for failing to enforce decade-old rules governing churches and politics.
The law was written in 1954 by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), who was facing a contentious reelection challenge where several 501(c)(3)s endorsed his opponent, labeling him soft on communism.
The pastors, who make it easy for the IRS by often taping their sermons and mailing them to the tax agency, argue that it infringes on their First Amendment rights.
“The church is God’s organization — what right does the government have to control this?” said Rev. Kevin Baird of Legacy Church in Charleston, S.C.
In a recent sermon Baird questioned the integrity of a local state Senate Republican official up for reelection, who calls himself “pro-life” yet has not advanced legislation on the issue in his committee.
In Charlotte, N.C., Southern Baptist preacher Mark Harris — who made his own failed bid for Sen. Hagan’s seat in the GOP primary earlier this year — said he made clear to his congregation that he backed Tillis, decrying Hagan’s pro-choice and gay marriage stances as “deeds of darkness” during an October service.
In Georgia a week later, Rev. Jeff Whitmire used his sermon to back Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and Senate candidate David Perdue (R), over their Democratic counterparts Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, he said.
And Cowart in Colorado also endorsed Rep. Cory Gardner (R) over incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D) saying, “We need to see him out.”
Their ultimate goal: igniting a lawsuit with the IRS and taking the issue to the Supreme Court.
“If by chance a member of the IRS gets this sermon and is listening, sue me,” said evangelical pastor Jim Garlow of the San Diego-based Skyline Church, after backing Democratic Rep. Scott Peters for reelection. His Republican challenger, Carl DeMaio, is gay, and could advance a “radical homosexual agenda,” Garlow warned.
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