Steve Riggle, pastor of Grace Community Church in Houston, with his wife, Becky
The nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which long has waged a campaign to keep churches and pastors silent on moral issues in the public arena, has been accused of violating the same Internal Revenue Service regulations it accuses churches of contravening.
“By sending [a] complaint letter [about a Texas pastor] on March 6, 2008, we believe AU was intervening in a campaign by intentionally attempting to chill the speech of a supporter of a candidate in an effort to both chill the pastor and harm the candidate’s campaign,” said a letter to the IRS from the Houston Area Pastor Council. “That is in direct violation of the IRS’ prohibition on non-profits intervening in political campaigns.”
The Americans United organization is incorporated in the United States under the IRS’ 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax status, the same as most churches and religious institutions. The letter was sent by Dave Welch, executive director of the HAPC, to Lois G. Lerner, director of the exempt organizations division at the IRS.
Americans United has a long history of complaining to the IRS when its officials believe a church, or even a pastor, have “intervened” in a political campaign.
WND recently reported when the Alliance Defense Fund launched its defense of a California pastor accused by the Internal Revenue Services of engaging in “political activities,” based on allegations submitted by Americans United.
Erik Stanley, a lawyer with the ADF, told WND the complaint against Pastor Wiley Drake, of Buena Park First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., is straight-forward because Drake endorsed a presidential candidate as an individual, which is allowed, not as a representative of his church.
The newest dispute arose after Pastor Steve Riggle of Grace Community Church personally supported his friend, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, for public office. Americans United complained immediately to the IRS, prompting the hundreds of members of the HAPC to accuse the Americans United of “harassment and intimidation.”
“Scripture, the U.S. Constitution and even IRS guidelines make it clear that a pastor does not give up his rights and duties as a citizen when he takes that position,” Welch said. “Barry Lynn knows that pastors may endorse candidates as individuals, that it is very obvious that the letter sent by Pastor Steve Riggle was not produced by or representing the church organization and that this complaint is a stereotypical act by Lynn of grandstanding and attempted intimidation.”
The new letter, dated on Monday, escalated the argument to the Internal Revenue Service.
“I believe that AU may have violated the Internal Revenue Code’s prohibition on intervention in political campaigns,” the letter said. “AU has mailed letters to you on several occasions complaining of political speech protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution being engaged in by pastors of various churches. On March 6, 2008, AU mailed a letter to you complaining of Pastor Steve Riggle’s constitutionally protected speech supporting his friend, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, for public office. Pastor Riggle’s letter was obviously not from his church, a fact which was clear to AU. AU even quoted that the letter contained a disclosure stating it was paid for and distributed by the campaign, not Riggle or any church,” the letter from Welch said.
He said the AU’s “frivolous” letter was “an effort to chill Pastor Riggle” and is part of a pattern of activity by AU.
“It is the combination of AU sending letters of complaint to the IRS and publicizing those complaints as if such a complaint connotes illegality, that has led to a chilling of protected speech by pastors,” the letter said. “This chilling effect is intentional and is a violation of the same regulations AU seeks to use as a weapon against pastors’ protected speech,” he said.
“I urge you to investigate AU’s illegal attempt to intervene in this campaign and all other campaigns in which AU intervened by filing frivolous complaints to the IRS in an effort to politically damage campaigns being endorsed by pastors,” Welch wrote.
Welch earlier said AU’s goal is to “expunge the public square of Christian speech and activity,” but that is not grounded in the Constitution.
Officials with the pastors’ council said they also are reviewing “other legal options” for responding to “an organized, nationwide, systematic conspiracy to use the power of our own government to inhibit pastors and churches from exercising our rights of free speech and free exercise.”
The notice he got from the IRS warned him about putting his Christian beliefs on the sign, and he responded that he would continue to preach the Word of God. Attorneys said the church has responded to the IRS demands, and has not had further contact yet.
In that case, Holick explained the signs all “are spiritual messages that communicate God’s truth or are directly related to messages in the Bible.” He also provided the IRS with a list of dozens of biblical instructions “to lift up Jesus, to rebuke sin, to save babies, to be honest, to take a righteous stand” and others.
WND also reported when Internet evangelist Bill Keller suggested that Lynn report his own denomination, the United Church of Christ, to the IRS.
Keller, who operates LivePrayer.com, says the suggestion follows the decision by the tax-exempt organization to open the podium of its general synod meetings to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
While in the podium, Obama lambasted the “religious right” for “hijacking” Christianity. “Faith got hijacked partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian right, who’ve been all too eager to exploit what divides us,” he said.
Lynn earlier had asked the IRS to investigate the Florida ministry of Keller, who hosts the Live Prayer TV program as well as LivePrayer.com, for his comments about Mormonism.
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