Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
A Florida-based evangelist says the Internal Revenue Service is burying him in endless, pointless paperwork to intimidate him into being silent on political issues.
Bill Keller, host of the Live Prayer TV program and LivePrayer.com, told WND the IRS began investigating him more than a year ago to determine if comments he made about political figures during the presidential primary season violated the terms of his ministry’s tax-exempt status.
Keller now claims that the IRS has refused to reach a decision, choosing instead to “grind him into a powder” with 30-page document requests and questionnaires every three or four months. He believes it’s an intimidation tactic, one that enables the IRS to dodge a decision that could be challenged in court but still send a message: “If you talk about politics in the pulpit, we’ll be on your back for the next five years.”
“If the IRS thinks I violated my exemption, let them have the guts to take away my exemption,” Keller told WND. “Then we’ll go to federal court and we’ll fight this out there. But they refuse to make a decision. All they’re doing is harassing me with this incredible administrative action that’s just crippling.”
Further, Keller asserts, the IRS has demanded he turn over thousands of pages of documents – including financial records, board minutes, verification of employee salaries, bank statements and canceled checks – that are completely unrelated to the investigation against him.
“If they want to audit me, let them audit,” Keller told WND. “But this isn’t an audit; this is supposed to be an investigation on whether or not I violated my exemption.”
Keller continued, “The comments I made about Romney, Obama, Clinton and McCain are the same comments I’ve been making about politicians of both parties for the past 20 years. All those comments are in the public domain: on dozens of television interviews, my written words from email devotions and transcripts from my television program. The IRS didn’t even need to send a letter of investigation; they have everything I’ve said and could have made a judgment on whether or not I violated the exemption from day one.”
Very few churches or ministries have been stripped of their tax-exempt status since 1954′s “Johnson Amendment,” when Democratic Sen. Lyndon Johnson amended the tax code to add the threat of IRS action against churches if their pastors endorsed political candidates from the pulpit.
In fact, as WND reported, the Alliance Defense Fund organized a campaign last year to bait the IRS into attempting enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, seeking a court case that could challenge the gag rule’s constitutionality.
Likewise, Keller is inviting the IRS to make a decision in his case, willing to make his appeal in court if the tax agency rules against him.
Without a decision or a court case, Keller fears, the IRS can use the same “burial by paperwork” tactic to intimidate any preacher into keeping quiet on the political issues of the day.
“I’ve got a small ministry; this isn’t Focus on the Family,” Keller said. “This is basically a one-man ministry, and when they ask for this voluminous amount of documents, I’m the only one that can pull all that together. It’s bordering now on harassment; it really feels like a continuous and endless harassment on their part.”
Americans United asserted the comments violated federal tax law.
In a telephone interview with the Washington Post, Keller laughed off the claims. “Let them come after me for making a spiritual statement about Mitt Romney,” he said. “I would love that.”
And while the IRS did indeed launch an investigation, Keller is demanding the agency reach a verdict.
On this point, Americans United agrees.
“Keller says he’s tired of the investigation and wants the IRS to make a decision concerning his fate,” writes Rob Boston in an editorial posted today on the Americans United website. “I agree – and that decision should be a no-brainer. Keller clearly violated the law and deserves to lose his tax-exempt status.”
Keller maintains his comments weren’t meant to make Romney a target, but to discredit Mormonism as a legitimate faith in line with the tenets of Christianity and criticize Christian leaders who at the time were supporting a member of what Keller labeled “the Mormon cult” for president.
“If they’re successful in shutting me down, then basically what that is saying to other ministries is (they) are no longer allowed to speak out on the spiritual issues of the day that also transcend into the political arena,” Keller told The St. Petersburg Times. “That’s all I’ve ever done.”