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Churches push limits on political endorsements

8:46 AM, Nov 2, 2012   |    comments
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By Bob Smietana | The Tennessean

The Rev. Glenn Denton of the 2,500-member Hillcrest Baptist Church in Lebanon doesn't care what the tax man says.

He's not going to stop telling people who God wants them to vote for -- and in his opinion, it's not Barack Obama.

"I would stand where I stood if I knew tomorrow that they were going to jerk our tax exemption," he said.

Internal Revenue Service rules ban leaders of churches and other charities from endorsing candidates or taking part in political campaigns. But investigations slowed three years ago, allowing some preachers and church groups to push the limits when it comes to politics in the pulpit.

That was the case in June when Michelle Obama spoke to more than 10,000 African Methodist Episcopal Church members during their national convention in Nashville.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, then based in Nashville, gave her stamp of approval to both Obamas while introducing the first lady.

"We need this team to lead us for the next four years," said McKenzie, who also was co-chairwoman of the credentials committee at this year's Democratic National Convention.

In a phone interview Thursday, McKenzie said she was expressing her opinion as a private citizen, not as a church official, in supporting Obama.

Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, says endorsing candidates is a bad idea for churches and ministers.

When churches get involved in campaigns, they risk misusing charitable donations for political gains, she said. "It threatens an end run around our campaign finance rules."

Erik Stanley of Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Christian legal group, disagrees. He says preachers should be able to talk about politics without government interference.

Since 2008, Stanley's group has organized an annual event called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Participants hope to provoke a court fight with the IRS over rules known as the Johnson Amendment.

Those rules were put in place in 1954 at the urging of Lyndon B. Johnson, then a Texas senator. Johnson was angered at two anti-Communist nonprofits that had backed one of his political rivals.

Before that time, churches and preachers were free to take part in campaigns.

"We feel like it's unquestionable the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional when it applies to a pastor in the pulpit," Stanley said.

No action taken

The IRS has taken no legal action in response to the Pulpit Freedom Sunday protests. Part of that is due to a technicality.

In 2008, a judge ruled that an IRS audit of a Minnesota megachurch was invalid because the wrong government official had signed off on it. IRS rules require a regional commissioner to approve church audits, but the IRS had eliminated that position.

However, IRS spokesman Dean Patterson said the agency still enforces its rules on churches.

Churches and other religious groups are allowed to discuss political issues and to encourage people to vote their values. But they have to be careful that a discussion of values doesn't turn into an endorsement of a particular candidate.

Hollman said a recent campaign run by the Rev. Billy Graham's organization might have crossed that line.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association recently ran ads urging followers to "vote biblical values." Among those values, according to the ads, are supporting Israel and opposing same-sex marriage and abortion -- all positions endorsed by the Romney campaign.

An article that called Mormonism a cult was removed from the Graham association website after Romney, who is Mormon, met with Graham in October.

That leaves the impression that Graham's group is endorsing Romney, Hollman said.

"I would not be surprised to see an IRS investigation," she said.

The Graham group said that the ads were planned and paid for long before the meeting with Romney and were not an endorsement.

Ken Barun, chief of staff for the association, said Graham has hosted several politicians in the past, including President Barack Obama in 2010.

"The 'biblical values' ads intentionally do not mention any candidate, political party, or contest, urging instead for readers to cast votes for candidates -- at all levels -- based on their support for biblical values," he said in a prepared statement.

Pastors oppose ban

Ed Stetzer, president of Nashville-based LifeWay Research, doesn't believe endorsements from pastors will ever become commonplace, at least in the pulpit.

In a recent LifeWay survey, nearly 90 percent of Protestant pastors said ministers should not endorse candidates during worship services. Fewer than half said they'd endorsed a candidate privately.

Last year, a LifeWay survey found that most ministers also wanted to see the government ban on church endorsements lifted.

"Pastors and church people don't want politics in the pulpit," Stetzer said. "However, they don't want the IRS determining what a pastor says either."

Stetzer, who also is pastor of Grace Church, said he doesn't endorse candidates at all.

Even if he's giving his personal opinion on a candidate, he said, people still assume he's speaking as a pastor.

"I don't think people can tell the difference," he said.

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