A few misguided religious leaders in South Dakota have decided they are above the law and are plowing ahead with a plan to endorse a gubernatorial candidate from the pulpit.

So far, the stunt isn’t exactly setting the Mount Rushmore State on fire. It started with an appeal from candidate Gordon Howie, a member of the South Dakota Senate who is running for governor. Howie claims he’s getting great response from pastors, but so far only one has publicly stepped forth.

Howie’s campaign issued a press release claiming that the Rev. H. Wayne Williams, pastor of Liberty Baptist Tabernacle in Rapid City, endorsed Howie from the pulpit May 15 during a church service.

But Williams may be getting a case of cold feet. He refused to talk to the Rapid City Journal about his endorsement and also did not return my call last week. I figured since Williams was so bold in breaking federal law, he would have no problem with Americans United reporting his church to the Internal Revenue Service. I called to ask him for a copy of his sermon, and although I left a detailed message, I haven’t heard back from him.

Meanwhile, a slew of other religious leaders contacted by the Journal expressed skepticism about the scheme. Even Howie’s own pastor said he had no plans to endorse the candidate in church.

The Rev. Greg Blanc of Calvary Chapel Community Church said he believes a pastor has “every constitutional right to express his personal opinion” but added he would not issue an endorsement from the pulpit.

Rapid City’s Roman Catholic Bishop Blase Cupich said his church has long advised local congregations to stay out of partisan politics. Guidelines issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cupich said, are designed “to assist dioceses and parishes to clearly understand and obey this IRS law.”

The Rev. Jeff Otterman of St. James Lutheran Church in Belle Fourche said he doesn’t consider it his job to instruct congregants on how to vote.

“The people at St. James are very well-read, and they don’t need their pastor telling them how to vote, or who to vote for,” Otterman said. “To back one candidate over another seems far-reaching and could alienate a congregation rather than create opportunity for growth.”

A local Jewish leader agreed. Wayne Gilbert, vice president of Synagogue of the Hills, told the Journal, “That I should be instructed by a religious leader as to which candidate has the moral or religious high ground is personally insulting to me. I expect religious leaders to offer me insight and guidance into spiritual and moral matters, not secular and political ones.”

While it’s nice to see that level of support for federal law in South Dakota, some confusion remains. Although Blanc said he has no plans to endorse, he seems to think he has a constitutional right to do it if he chooses.

Another local pastor, Scott Craig, has signed on with a misguided campaign by the Alliance Defense Fund, which is urging pastors to openly violate the law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.

“It’s important for the nation to reframe this whole question, not as a church-state separation issue, but as a free speech issue,” Craig said. “Specifically endorsing candidates from the pulpit is not breaking the law, as the nation has been led to believe.”

Actually, Scott, it is.

The free-speech argument was tried and failed. (See Branch Ministries v. Rossotti.) Tax exemption is a benefit. As such, it comes with conditions. One of those conditions is that groups holding 501(c)(3) status may not intervene in political campaigns by endorsing or opposing candidates.

Some pastors in South Dakota also seem to be operating under the delusion that the IRS does not enforce this law. Wrong again. The federal tax agency maintains a special program, the Political Activity Compliance Initiative (PACI), that works solely on educating religious leaders and other heads non-profits about the law and making sure it is followed. (Information about how the IRS enforced PACI in 2008 can be found here.)

Americans United will be watching developments closely this election season. If we see evidence of law breaking, we will alert the IRS. (Want to help out? See more here.)

Finally, a special shout out to Rev. Williams: I’m still waiting for that call back. You say you have a right to endorse candidates from the pulpit, and you claim that the IRS won’t stop you. So send me your May 15 sermon, and I’ll get it right off to the feds.

You’re not suddenly afraid, are you?

UPDATE: On June 8, I was able to reach Rev. Williams by phone. He told me that he was out of town when the Rapid City Journal called and said he did call the paper back, but that the reporter never responded to him. Williams admits he endorsed Howie from the pulpit and insisted he had a right to do that. However, he  refused to provide me with a copy of his May 15 sermon.