Pastor Challenges IRS, Urges Congregation Not to Vote for Dems

By Allison Aldrich | July 7, 2008 | 8:33 PM EDT

( - A Minnesota pastor may be getting his wish: an IRS audit and probe.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a liberal group, this week called on the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether Pastor Gus Booth violated his church's tax-exempt status by delivering a politically charged sermon to his congregation in May.

Speaking from his pulpit, Pastor Booth had told the congregation of Warroad Community Church last weekend: "If you are a Christian, you cannot support a candidate like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton."

But Booth not only wanted to provoke the IRS into an investigation, he sent the government a letter inviting their attention. Then he sent a letter to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"I may be taking on the IRS," Booth told ABC News, "but the IRS has taken on the Constitution unchallenged since 1954. I feel like the only law that should dictate what I am allowed to say is the First Amendment."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State took Booth up on the invitation and sent its own letter to the IRS.

"Pastors need to stick to issues, not personalities," Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for the group, told Cybercast News Service.

Booth broke the law, said Boston.

"Nonprofits are permitted to engage in issue advocacy, but they may not tell people who to vote for or against," Boston said. "If a pastor feels a need to go further, he can always give up his church's tax exemption. He could then be as political as he likes."

But Kevin Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative nonprofit public interest law firm, said the Minnesota pastor is trying to raise a larger issue: Does the IRS have the right to censor pastors in the pulpit?

The controversy over political speech of pastors hinges on the interpretation of one word: "intervention," he said.

Hasson said the Internal Revenue Code prohibits tax-exempt entities (organizations), like churches, from "intervening" in political campaigns.

"When a pastor is preaching from the pulpit to his own congregation, it is not the entity intervening in anything; it's the entity speaking within itself," Hasson told Cybercast News Service.

Hasson pointed out that pastors have long taken proactive roles in public policy issues, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Black churches had a strong leadership role in the movement, advocating for civil rights and informing their congregations about which politicians were sympathetic to their cause.

However, strict separationists like Americans United believe that pastors of tax-exempt churches must avoid endorsements, adding that partisanship is something that many church members do not want to hear anyway.

"Polls show that most people do not want their pastor to get involved in partisan politics," Boston said. "People are capable of making up their own minds in the voting booth. It is arrogant of pastors to assume that their political views are shared by everyone in the congregation."

For Hasson, however, the issue is not what people want to hear, it is about constitutional rights.

"There's no comfort clause in the Constitution," he said. "The pulpit is sacred, and we will defend anything said from the pulpit, right, left or center."

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