Pastor Wiley Drake
Pastor Wiley Drake of Buena Park, Calif., First Southern Baptist Church has been cleared by the Internal Revenue Service of allegations he violated the nation’s tax code and endangered his church’s tax-exempt status by endorsing Mike Huckabee for president.
Drake announced news of the IRS decision to his congregation on Sunday, explaining that even though he’s a pastor, he is still entitled to free speech.
“I’m sorry folks, I live in America, not Russia or China,” Drake said. He then added, “The pastor does not run the church. The people run the church.”
In February, the IRS notified the church it was being investigated at the request of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which complained about Drake’s activities.
Drake was accused of using a press release and his radio program to endorse Huckabee, allegedly in violation of a tax code amendment filed in 1954 by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, which banned churches from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of – or in opposition to – candidates for public office.
“This is an absolute prohibition,” said the first letter, “violation of which can result in revocation of exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, had released a statement saying, “I commend the IRS for investigating Pastor Drake’s flagrant abuse of church resources.”
However, Drake was defended by one of the pre-eminent advocacy law firms in the nation, the Alliance Defense Fund. Attorney Erik Stanley told WND that defending the complaint against Drake was straight-forward because Drake endorsed a presidential candidate as an individual, not as a representative of his church.
“The IRS doesn’t really have anything to stand on,” he told WND before news of the exoneration broke. “He [Drake] personally endorsed Mike Huckabee and made it clear it was a personal endorsement. They are allowed to do that.”
The endorsement was publicized in two ways: in an e-mailed press release that Drake had sent to personal acquaintances and also on “The Wiley Drake Show,” an online program broadcast on Crusade Radio.
The press release, however, was sent from a personal e-mail account to people outside the church, and Drake’s radio show is not funded by, nor operated by, the church.
The IRS’ conclusion found the endorsement was done in Pastor Drake’s “personal capacity” and “was not authorized or approved by the Buena Park First Southern Baptist Church and no church resources were utilized.”
“Based on these facts,” concluded the IRS, “Buena Park First Southern Baptist Church did not engage in prohibited political campaign intervention in violation of the requirements of IRC section 501 (c)(3).”
The ADF is now advocating that other churches and pastors take a stand against the 1954 Johnson amendment that it sees as unconstitutional. As WND earlier reported, ADF has announced a new initiative that will challenge the IRS ban on political comment from churches and their pastors.
“Churches have for too long feared the loss of tax exempt status arising from speech in the pulpit addressing candidates for office,” the group said. “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 group is encouraging pastors across the U.S. to deliver sermons on Sunday, Sept. 28, that “openly discuss the positions of political candidates and other moral and social issues from the pulpit.”
Furthermore, ADF said it will “equip, protect, and defend pastors who exercise their First Amendment right” in so doing.
Pastors who want to participate can find information at a special page assembled on the ADF website. Certain restrictions to “The Pulpit Initiative” do apply.
“By standing together and speaking with one voice,” says the group’s website, “it is our hope to recapture the rightful place of pastors and churches in American life.”