Jul 08, 1998

A Texas preacher's threat to drive the "infidels" off the Wichita Falls City Council could bring Internal Revenue Service scrutiny and the loss of his congregation's federal tax-exempt status, a church-state watchdog group has charged.

In a recent message to his flock at the First Baptist Church, the Rev. Robert Jeffress said America is a Christian nation and congregants should defeat city council members at the polls if they refuse to ban two books with gay themes from the local public library. According to the June 29 Wichita Falls Times Record News, Jeffress challenged his congregation to "vote out the infidels who would deny God and his word."

The pastor noted that city council races traditionally attract low voter turnout and urged his congregation, which claims 8,300 members, to vote for those who agree with their spiritual convictions.

In a July 9 letter to Jeffress, Americans United for Separation of Church and State warned that the preacher was placing his church's tax exemption in jeopardy.

"Your comments about how your congregation should vote in the next election raise serious legal questions.... If you proceed with your plan to use your church to defeat city council members with whom you disagree," observed the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, "you are placing the tax-exempt status of your congregation in jeopardy.

"The meaning of your 'vote out the infidels' comment is clear," Lynn added. "You want city council members to vote your way about library books you find objectionable, and if they fail to do so, you are instructing your congregation to vote against them. As such, you have issued a political threat, and this is exactly the kind of activity that federal tax law is trying to prevent.

"Pastor Jeffress, you have every right to express your views on public issues," Lynn explained. "As a Christian minister myself, I treasure the right of religious organizations to participate in public discourse. However, you do not have the right to impose your religious views on all citizens of your community through force of law. America is a diverse democracy, not a fundamentalist Christian theocracy."

Americans United is currently engaged in a nationwide campaign to educate clergy about the laws governing church involvement in politics. As part of the project, churches that violate the rules are being reported to the IRS.

In recent years, Americans United has notified the IRS of 14 religious institutions that attempted to influence the outcome of elections, including two churches and one religious radio network in Texas.

Further, in 1992, Americans United alerted the IRS to the activities of the Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y. At that time, the church purchased full-page advertisements in national newspapers urging readers to vote against then-candidate Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election. Three years after Americans United reported this blatant example of church politicking to the IRS, the church's tax exemption was revoked.