July/August 2008 Church & State | People & Events

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate a Minnesota church and a Wash­ington state religious group for im­proper partisan politicking.

AU asked the IRS to investigate Warroad Community Church in War­road, Minn., after Pastor Gus Booth delivered a sermon May 18 in which he said Christians could not vote for presidential candidates Barack Oba­ma or Hillary Clinton. (Clinton was still an active candidate at the time.)

“You have heard our Lord’s commands about the sanctity of life and marriage,” Booth said from the pulpit. “You have heard the positions of the candidates. There is no middle ground in this election.

“If you are a Christian,” Booth con­tinued, “you cannot support a candidate like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton for president because he/she stands opposite of every one of the Biblical mandates we have addressed today. I urge you, when you enter that voting booth, to not vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or candidates like him/her that support and encourage activities our Lord condemns in the strongest terms.”

Booth added, “If Jesus Christ is really Lord, then He is Lord over every area of our lives, including who we vote for and support politically....[J]ust as we strive as Christians to conform our lives as closely to Scripture as possible, so we should seek to elect leaders that align their positions with Scripture – especially on the vital issues where Scripture leaves no ambiguity. When you vote, vote as Christ commands.”

About two weeks after the sermon, Booth, who is a delegate to this year’s National Republican Convention, sent an e-mail message to Americans United, noting that he had used his pulpit for partisan purposes and attaching a copy of a story about the sermon from the Warroad Pioneer.

“I am writing you to let you know that I preached a sermon in my church on Sunday, May 18, 2008, that specifically addressed the current candidates for President in the light of the Bible,” Booth wrote. “As you can see from the attached newspaper article, I specifically made recommendations as to who a Christian should vote for…. I am letting you know that I will not be intimidated into silence when I believe that God wants me to address the great moral issues of the day, including who will be our next national leader.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn called Booth’s actions a flagrant violation of federal tax law. Churches and other tax-exempt organizations are free to address moral issues but are not allowed to engage in campaign intervention.  

“Booth is free to endorse anyone he wants to as a private citizen,” Lynn said. “But when he is standing in his tax-exempt pulpit as the top official of a tax-exempt religious organization, he must lay partisanship aside. The IRS needs to look into this apparent violation of federal tax law.”

Booth allowed the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to reprint his entire sermon on its Web site and remarked, speaking of his church’s tax-exempt status, “If we lost it, then so be it.”

AU has also asked the IRS to investigate a Washington state religious group that engaged in fund-raising for a gubernatorial candidate. The Tacoma, Wash., branch of the Christian Businessmen’s Connection hosted Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi on May 21 in Fircrest. During the event, Dwight Mason, the group’s president, noted that fund-raising envelopes for Rossi had been left on the tables.

The Tacoma News Tribune reported that Mason prayed for Rossi and then said, “OK, at your table, this is not a fundraiser, though Dino did leave with us a couple envelopes there, and I’m sure he’d appreciate that.”

A spokesperson for Rossi, Jill Strait, later confirmed that the envelopes, used to collect donations, were left on tables. Strait said, “We have envelopes that we bring with us wherever we go.”

Federal tax law bars tax-exempt organizations from intervening in political campaigns. Although Mason originally denied that fund-raising had occurred, he stopped talking to the media once a tape of the event surfaced.

In other news about religion in politics:

A California minister who used church letterhead and a church-affiliated radio show to endorse former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee will not face IRS penalties. Americans United asked the IRS to investigate the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park after the Rev. Wiley Drake’s actions came to light. But the IRS recently informed Drake that it does not consider his activities to be a violation of the “no-politicking” rule.

The tax agency apparently bought Drake’s claim that the radio show is a personal project not endorsed by the congregation, even though the preacher sometimes broadcasts the program from the church on his cell phone during his break.

Drake ran for president of the Southern Baptist Convention this year. If he was hoping the controversy would attract voters, he must have been disappointed. He came in last out of six candidates, attracting only 45 votes out of 5,856 ballots cast. (Johnny Hunt, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., won on the first ballot with 3,100 votes.)

The IRS has informed the United Church of Christ that it did not violate federal tax law by allowing Sen. Barack Obama to speak at its convention in June of 2007. The UCC argued that it invited Obama, who is a member of the denomination, before he announced his presidential candidacy and that he spoke in a non-candidate capacity. The IRS recently told the church’s national offices that it agrees and the inquiry has been dropped.