December 2010 Church & State | People & Events

As election season 2010 came to a close, Americans United asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate several churches that engage in unlawful partisan politicking.

In mid October, AU filed a complaint after the pastor of Berean Bible Church in Hastings endorsed several political candidates during an Oct. 17 sermon. Pastor Brad Brandon endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and several other candidates from the pulpit.

“Pastor Brandon has pulled his tax-exempt church into partisan politics in blatant violation of federal law,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This a clear-cut case, and the IRS should act.”

A reporter with the Minnesota Independent attended the service and reported that Brandon endorsed Emmer and several other candidates for U.S. Congress and state offices. Brandon also distributed a flier listing the candidates that the church has endorsed.

The pastor was upfront about his actions and had, in fact, indicated beforehand that he would endorse candidates from the pulpit.

“This has been recorded, taped this morning,” he said. “We are not shy about what we are doing. In fact we are very, very bold in what we are doing. I am not violating the IRS code 501(c)(3). I don’t consider myself violating that, but I do consider myself exercising my free speech.”

Americans United said Brandon is wrong. Federal law prohibits 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates.

“The leadership of this church knowingly chose to violate the law,” Lynn said. “In my view, the church should lose its tax-exempt status.”

Not long after that complaint, AU filed another over the actions of a church in Wimauma, Fla.

Pastor Arlen Beck of Sun City Christian Center told congregants on Oct. 24 that he had prepared a list of candidates that he intends to vote for and placed copies of the list in the back of the church for their use.

Beck’s actions were reported in the St. Petersburg Times, which quoted an attendee who was offended by Beck’s endorsements.

The Times reported that Beck said, “If you’re conservative you might want to pick one of those up. If you’re liberal you might not want to stop by there.” Beck later told the newspaper that he does not care if the IRS revokes his church’s tax exemption.

In addition, AU also reported the Greater New Birth Church in Milwaukee, Wisc., after the church hosted what was in effect a rally for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate days before election.

The Associated Press reported Nov. 1 that gubernatorial hopeful Tom Barrett, his wife and his running mate attended the service. Barrett addressed congregants, urging them to support him as they did President Barack Obama in 2008.

The story also reported that the church’s pastor, Bishop R.J. Burt, introduced Barrett as “our future governor of Wisconsin” and implored congregants to vote.