Pastor endorses Bachmann; IRS gets complaint

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 2006 - 10:10 AM

The candidate also spoke at four services at Brooklyn Park church.

A Brooklyn Park minister's church-delivered endorsement of congressional candidate Michele Bachmann has prompted a formal complaint to the IRS and led a church official to acknowledge that the endorsement was inappropriate.

The Rev. Mac Hammond, senior pastor of Living Word Christian Center, introduced Michele Bachmann, the GOP's Sixth District candidate, before speeches she gave at four weekend services.

"We can't publicly endorse as a church and would not for any candidate," Hammond said. "But I can tell you personally that I'm going to vote for Michele Bachmann."

On Tuesday, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), filed a complaint with the IRS, whose rules say churches are prohibited from "directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate."

IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis said she could not comment on the complaint or reveal whether others have been filed.

CREW attorney Tim Mooney said Hammond and his church "crossed the line and [Bachmann's] appearance was a stump speech wrapped in a sermon."

Hammond "has the perfect right to endorse a candidate on his own time, but he used church resources in making that statement," Mooney said.

Hammond was not available for comment, but another Living Word pastor, the Rev. Tim Burt, said Bachmann was invited to speak about "her spiritual journey" and that Hammond believed he was within IRS guidelines because he said he, not the church, backed her.

"Please don't let this become a political football," Burt said. "There was no intent for this to be a political event."

However, he added that Hammond "now has more insight on these matters, and it won't happen again."

Bachmann spokeswoman Connie Slama said the campaign had no comment other than to say, "Living Word was so gracious to invite Michele to speak."

In her talks, Bachmann said that she and her husband fasted and prayed for three days about whether to run and "that on the afternoon of day two, [God] made that calling sure."Who in their right mind would spend two years to run for a job that lasts two years?" she said. "You'd have to be absolutely a fool to do that. You are now looking at a fool for Christ."

The speech, taped from the church's live webcast by Minneapolis graphic artist Ken Avidor and posted on a blog called Dump Michele Bachmann, quickly made its way onto the popular website youtube.com and sparked vehement debate on the Internet.

An ongoing debate

Although IRS rules allow churches to take positions on issues, several nationwide have been accused of going too far and endorsing candidates outright. The IRS has targeted an Episcopalian pastor in Pasadena, Calif., who sermonized against the war in Iraq and politicians who oppose abortion rights. The liberal church's argument that the Pasadena sermon was merely a values discussion has been backed by many conservative church leaders.

Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he does not think the controversy will hurt Bachmann. "I don't think a liberal strategy of attacking a candidate for her faith or siccing the IRS on a church is going to work in the Sixth District," he said.

Chuck Darrell, communications director for the Minnesota Family Council, said Hammond "made his statement as a private citizen, which is his right."

Darrell said he worries that the controversy could intimidate pastors into silence on moral issues.

"There is nothing in our Constitution that says pastors must remain mute," he said. "If we are truly interested in diversity and inclusion, then people of faith should be welcome in the marketplace of ideas, not censored."

But Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, said he believes Bachmann's appearances "crossed the line if the church failed to invite her opponent."

(Corey Day, campaign manager for Bachmann's chief rival, Democrat Patty Wetterling, said Living Word did not invite Wetterling.)

"It's important to know that no one is talking about silencing churches, just about their tax-exempt status," Hofrenning said. "Pastors should be able to talk about gay marriage all they want to. But [Hammond] urging people to register to vote and saying he supports her at a speech in a church where the heating bills are paid with tax-exempt funds -- well, that comes pretty close to connecting the dots."

Careful around candidates

The Rev. Peg Chemberlin, director of the Minnesota Council of Churches, said she has not heard of any similar cases in Minnesota but that there is "an awful lot of buzz among church people about where the line is."As an organization and with our individual churches, we try to be very careful," she said. "Anytime we hold an event around politics, we would invite all the candidates."

Burt said Living Word held an issues forum in March to which it invited Republican and Democratic candidates.

"Truly, there was no intent for this to be a political event," he said. "But the lines can be blurry. Next time, we would be more careful."

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