Aug 23, 2012

A state Baptist group’s endorsement of two political candidates may have violated federal tax law and should be investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, a church-state watchdog says.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a complaint with the IRS about the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) for intervening in the Missouri Republican primary on behalf of candidates for state and federal offices.

In a May 2012 edition of The Pathway, the official publication of the Missouri Baptist Convention, MBC Director of Public Policy Don Hinkle endorsed U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin and state attorney general candidate Ed Martin.

In a column headlined “Allegiance to God, not a political party,” Hinkle wrote, “We want government leaders who are righteous and who will pass righteous laws that serve the common good and bring glory to Jehovah God who established government and is Sovereign.

“This is why,” continued Hinkle, “I personally support candidates like U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican who wants to challenge Democrat Claire McCaskill for her U.S. Senate seat, and Republican Ed Martin, the St. Louis attorney who is running for state attorney general. I support them because they view many of the critical issues the same way I do and in a way that is consistent with God’s Word.”

Americans United said federal law clearly prohibits tax-exempt institutions from using their staff, their publications and other resources to support candidates for public office.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “This is a misuse of religion for partisan political ends. I believe the IRS should launch an immediate investigation. When church-goers put their money in the collection plate, they don’t expect it to be diverted to political purposes.” 

Hinkle, who serves as editor of The Pathway, characterized his endorsement of Akin and Martin as “personal,” but IRS revenue rulings do not permit the employees of tax-exempt organizations to use official publications to intervene in elections on behalf of candidates.

Hinkle’s column is not the only evidence of campaign intervention by the Missouri Baptist Convention. In a July 2012 edition of The Pathway, the newspaper published an article reporting that a large number of Missouri Baptist Convention leaders and pastors had endorsed Akin because of his “long-standing commitment to our God-given rights.”

Over 100 Akin endorsers were listed by name, including current and former Convention officials and pastors. (Hinkle was among them.) The article appeared in the organization’s official publication just weeks before the Aug. 7 primary election, and there were apparently no similar articles listing Missouri Baptist Convention leaders or pastors who endorsed Akin’s opponents. (The close political relationship between Akin and the MBC was detailed in an Aug. 22 article in Ethics Daily, an online news outlet.)

Americans United’s Project Fair Play encourages religious organizations to learn about the provisions of federal tax law. When churches or other religious groups flagrantly violate the law, AU files complaints with the IRS.