Jan 16, 2008

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate a Nevada church whose pastor called for the election of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama from the pulpit on Sunday.

Obama spoke during services at the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ in Las Vegas on Jan. 13 in what the Las Vegas Review-Journal described as a “surprise appearance.” Before the Illinois senator arrived, Pastor Leon Smith told the congregation, “The more he (Obama) speaks, the more he wins my confidence, and ... if the polls were open today, I would cast my vote for this senator.”

Smith added, “If you can’t support your own, you’re never going to get anywhere.... I want to see this man in office.”

Americans United said churches are tax-exempt and may not engage in partisan politics.

“The pastor clearly stated that Obama should be elected, and he did so from the pulpit during Sunday services,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It’s impossible to see this as anything but an endorsement.”

Federal tax law states that non-profit groups holding 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status may not intervene in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. The IRS has stated that it is cracking down on violations of the law.

Obama’s appearance in the church took place just six days before the Nevada caucuses. In a letter to the IRS, Lynn noted that the incident was discussed on several political blogs with a nationwide audience.

“The legality of Smith’s action is already being discussed and questioned,” Lynn wrote in Americans United’s complaint to the IRS. “Therefore, I believe it is important that the IRS investigate this matter promptly.”

Americans United sponsors Project Fair Play, a program that educates religious leaders about federal tax law governing political activity. As part of the program, flagrant electioneering violations by religious groups are reported to the IRS.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.