Aug 07, 2008

The Internal Revenue Service should investigate a Tennessee church whose pastor endorsed three school board candidates from the pulpit, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a complaint filed with the IRS today, Americans United asserts that Pastor Maury Davis of Cornerstone Church in Madison, Tenn., violated federal tax law with comments during an Aug. 3 sermon.

According to the Nashville Tennessean, Davis had appeared on a local radio station July 25 to endorse the candidates (all of whom are members of his church) as a private citizen, which he may do. But during the sermon, he lauded the three, remarking, “They’re all from our church and we want you to get to know them and see what you can do to help them. I want to tell you that I am not allowed to promote a political candidate from the pulpit because of the IRS guidelines…. I’m allowed on a radio station to say I want you to vote for Tony Davis and Robby McGee and Charlie Taylor, but I’m not allowed to say that in our pulpit.”

According to the Tennessean, Tony Davis is the pastor's brother, McGee is Cornerstone’s associate pastor and Taylor is a church member.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, urged the IRS to promptly investigate the matter.

“Tax-exempt groups cannot use their resources to support or oppose candidates for public office,” said Lynn. “When a church-paid pastor stands in the tax-exempt pulpit and urges the congregation to help certain candidates, that’s a clear violation. He is the top church official, and he is there in his official capacity.”

Lynn’s letter to the IRS expressed particular concern about the pastor’s flippant attitude toward federal tax law.

“I find the manner in which Davis issued this pulpit endorsement particularly offensive,” wrote Lynn. “He appears to be openly mocking the IRS rules. Furthermore, Davis’ statement indicates that he is clearly aware that the IRS does not permit tax-exempt houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking. He did so anyway, fully aware that he was violating the law.”

The IRS has repeatedly stated that it is stepping up enforcement of the laws barring partisan politicking by non-profit groups. In April, Exempt Organizations Director Lois G. Lerner noted that enforcement procedures have been placed in the hands of career IRS employees who are experts in the tax law in this area.

Americans United’s Lynn says he expects an increase in the number of tax law violations by religious groups this year. The Alliance Defense Fund and other Religious Right organizations are urging pastors to flout the IRS Code and engage in partisan electioneering from the pulpit.

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.