The Internal Revenue Service has announced that it is closing its investigation of the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif., a congregation that Americans United believed stepped over the line into partisan politics.
Americans United in August asked the IRS to investigate the church after its pastor, the Rev. Wiley Drake issued an e-mail press release on church letterhead endorsing Mike Huckabee for president. Drake later repeated the endorsement on his internet radio show.
The incident sparked a mini-media flap after Drake announced he was praying for the deaths of Americans United staff members. While the "imprecatory prayers" were disturbing, that was always a sideshow. The big question was whether Drake broke the law.
Surprisingly, the IRS says no. I think the tax agency is wrong, and I wish its officials had looked at this matter in a little more depth.
The IRS says Drake's endorsement of Huckabee was personal and not done on behalf of his church. It also said that Drake's radio show is not church sponsored, pointing out that Drake runs it from his cell phone wherever he happens to be.
But Drake himself has admitted that his church has a hand in everything he does. After AU reported him, Drake remarked on his radio program, "Yes, I endorsed him [Huckabee] personally and, yes, we use the First Southern Baptist Church. Everything we do is under the auspices of the church."
I think the IRS blew this one. AU provided the tax agency with solid evidence that Drake was violating federal tax law by intervening in an election. Drake boasted about his actions being church sponsored. For some reason, the agency chose to believe Drake when he changed his tune and began claiming his actions were private.
If there's anything good to come from all of this, it's this: The investigation is evidence that the IRS takes reports of partisan politicking by religious groups seriously and should remind religious leaders to make sure they stay on the right side of the law. The IRS may not always agree with Americans United, but it's clear that the agency is enforcing the law.
There's a larger lesson here. Church officials who don't want to face an investigation by the IRS should learn the rules about politicking and abide by them.
It's also worth remembering that, although Drake skated, some churches and religious organizations have faced IRS sanctions. The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., lost its tax exemption for placing newspaper ads attacking then-candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.
Non-profit religious groups run by Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell have been assessed substantial penalties for intervening in partisan politics. Other pastors have been visited by IRS agents and asked to sign documents promising not to endorse candidates. Still others have been audited.
There are some gray areas in federal tax law, but the bottom line remains the same: Pastors who choose to cross the line into politicking may get away with it or they may not. They must ask themselves if it is worth risking their tax exemption to endorse some candidate.
One other good thing might come of this: Now that he's been cleared, maybe Drake will stop praying for our deaths.