Pastor Gus Booth
Gus Booth, a pastor in Warroad, Minn., preached from the pulpit, “If you are a Christian, you cannot support a candidate like Barack Obama,” knowing that he was violating federal tax code and jeopardizing his church’s tax-exempt status by speaking against a specific candidate.
Then he wrote a letter to the IRS explaining what he did and challenging the agency to investigate him.
Booth told ABC News that the threat of the IRS revoking churches’ tax-exempt status if they preach politics amounts to government censorship of religion and a violation of our nation’s founding documents.
“I may be taking on the IRS,” Booth said, “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.”
In 1954 the IRS tax code was changed to forbid churches “from directly or indirectly participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.”
If pastors target specific candidates, like Booth did in his sermon, their churches risk losing tax-exempt status.
Booth, however, sees the tax code as a violation of both the Bill of Rights and the words of God.
In his sermon, Booth explained his spiritual opposition to the tax code by quoting an 1863 sermon from Henry Ward Beecher: “It is sometimes said that ministers must not preach politics. … They would have to toe hop, and skip and jump through two thirds of the Bible if they did not, for the there is not another book on the face of God’s earth that is so full of commerce and business and government, and the relations between the governing and the governed, as this same Bible.”
Booth’s sermon included several Scripture passages that he claimed clearly defined the biblical stance on marriage and abortion. Then he said, “You have heard our Lord’s commands about the sanctity of life and marriage. You have heard the positions of the candidates. There is no middle ground in this election. … I urge you, when you enter that voting booth, to not vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or candidates like them that support and encourage activities our Lord condemns in the strongest terms.”
Booth knows he has invited trouble, and he didn’t do so lightly. “A month before I made the sermon I talked to the church leadership,” he told ABC News. “I told them, ‘If we do this we could lose our tax-exempt status. Are you prepared for that?’ We spent a week in prayer, and I felt God was telling me to make that speech.”
Trouble may have indeed found him. The Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a letter last week to the IRS urging the government to take Booth up on his challenge.
Barry Lynn, executive director of American United told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that churches need to choose whether they’re going to be religious or political organizations. “Some churches have given up tax exemptions so they don’t have to play by (IRS) rules,” he said.
“Tax exemption is not a right; it’s a privilege with certain restrictions,” Lynn told ABC News.
“There is a very simple test religious leaders can use to determine if they’re violating the law,” Lynn said. “Ask yourself: ‘Is what I’m doing intended to help someone’s candidacy?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ don’t do it.”
Tax exemption is not a privilege the IRS has been ready to revoke easily, however. In 2006, the IRS received 237 complaints of groups abusing their tax-exempt status, investigated 100 and has yet to recommend revocation for any of them.
The last time the IRS revoked a church’s tax-exempt status was in 1992, when a New York church took out an ad asking “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?”
Booth’s sermon may have sounded similar to the advertisement, but he believes pastors must be able to communicate specifically about the politics of the day to be able to faithfully preach the Bible and guide their congregations.
“It is my desire, and I dare say God’s desire,” Booth said in his sermon, “to use this pulpit to influence you and your family and friends to vote for the most biblical candidates this November. When you participate in the election process you allow God to participate as well (through you).”
Booth may soon have a large number of allies in his challenge to the IRS rules. As WND reported earlier, the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious liberty advocacy group, is asking for preachers to join in their Pulpit Initiative, an attempt to “reclaim pastors’ constitutional right to speak truth from the pulpit” by inviting pastors on one Sunday to intentionally challenge the IRS ruling with the content of their sermons.
The event, planned for Sept. 28, will be a day for pastors to “evaluate candidates in light of Scripture,” Eric Stanley, senior legal counsel for ADF, told ABC News. “Our hope is that the IRS will initiate investigations and we can bring this into the federal courts.”
“This isn’t about political speech; it is about religious speech,” Stanley said. “Scripture applies to every aspect of life, including who we elect.”
The ADF released a white paper on the Pulpit Initiative stating, “ADF believes that IRS restrictions on religious expression from the pulpit, whenever the IRS characterizes it as ‘political,’ is unconstitutional. After 50 years of threats and intimidation, churches should confront the IRS directly and reclaim the expressive rights guaranteed to them in the United States Constitution.”
The ADF said its program will “equip, protect, and defend pastors who wish to exercise their First Amendment right to openly discuss the positions of political candidates and other moral and social issues from the pulpit.”
Pastors who want to participate can find information at a special page assembled on the ADF website.
Related special offers: