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The Rev. Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church wants to "open a dialogue" on political preaching.
He'll probably get his wish.
Booth, a delegate to the Republican National Convention, alerted Americans United for Separation of Church and State to a recent sermon warning followers to oppose Barack Obama for his stance on abortion rights. Booth advised the group that defends church-state separation that he's challenging federal prohibitions on political advocacy from the pulpit.
On Wednesday, Americans United asked the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate whether the evangelical church with a following of 150 violated its nonprofit, tax-exempt status with Booth's sermon.
The IRS forbids churches "from directly or indirectly participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office."
Booth was picked as a GOP national delegate during the Seventh Congressional District convention in April, about a month before he gave his sermon urging followers not to vote for either Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton. The pastor said he originally supported former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who had sought the Republican nomination, but will support the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Booth, 34, defended his actions in an interview Wednesday, saying his constitutional right to free expression trumps tax law, "and the Bible has been around longer than either."
But Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said "the grant of a tax exemption is not a right, it's a privilege. It comes with certain restrictions."
An IRS spokesperson in St. Paul, Carrie Resch, declined to comment Wednesday about the complaint against the Warroad church, saying federal law prohibits disclosing information about individual taxpayers.
Prohibitions against tax-exempt churches preaching from the pulpit in support of a candidate have been in effect since 1954, and prohibitions against preaching in opposition to a candidate have been law since 1987.
"The IRS has seen a growth in the number and variety of allegations of such behavior by [churches and other charities] during election cycles," the agency said. In 2004 the IRS intensified efforts to enforce tax-exempt requirements and found that religious leaders used the pulpit to endorse or oppose a candidate 12 times.
The agency said it did not recommend revoking the tax-exempt status of any of the clergy's churches, but instead issued written warnings or assessed an excise tax.
The IRS did not identify the dozen churches.
In 2006, complaints were filed against Mac Hammond of the Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park for endorsing then-candidate Michele Bachmann, now a U.S. House member, from the church's pulpit. Hammond later acknowledged that he'd made a mistake.
"To be honest with you, with a little bit of the fallout relative to Michele Bachmann, we're taking a little bit more careful road," said the Rev. Brian Sullivan, the church spokesman. "I don't think we crossed the line, but it raised concerns and suspicions."
Lynn said he could recall only one church in the nation in recent years losing tax-exempt status because of political preaching. The Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., took out an ad in 1992 that read, "The Bible warns us to not follow another man in his sin, nor help him promote sin -- lest God chasten us." It concluded, "How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?"
The IRS revoked the church's tax-exempt status in 1995, and the decision only became public after the church lost a court battle to overturn the ruling.
GOP convention spokesman James Davis did not return a call Wednesday about Booth.
The sermon at issue
The pastor, in his May 18 sermon, likened himself to American ministers during the Revolutionary War who delivered sermons in opposition to British occupation.
"It is my desire and, I dare say, God's desire to use this pulpit to influence you and your family and friends to vote for the most Biblical candidates this November," he said, according to a prepared text of the sermon that he released Wednesday. He said the text was virtually identical to his delivered sermon.
"Both Hillary and Barak [sic] favor the shedding of innocent blood (abortion) and the legalization of the abomination of homosexual marriage," he said. "You have heard the positions of the candidates. There is no middle ground in this election. If you are a Christian, you cannot support a candidate like Barak [sic] Obama or Hillary Clinton for president because he/she stands opposite of every one of the Biblical mandates we have addressed today. I urge you, when you enter that voting booth, to not vote for Barak [sic] Obama or Hillary Clinton or candidates like him/her that support and encourage activities our Lord condemns in the strongest terms."
Both Obama and Clinton support abortion rights and have spoken in favor of same-sex civil unions, although not gay marriage.
Booth said he hasn't calculated what a loss in the church's tax-exempt status would cost it.
"If we lost it, then so be it," he said."
Lynn said churches don't have to be tax-exempt, and the Warroad church has an option if it wants its minister to advocate for a candidate. "There are some churches that have given up tax exemptions so they don't have to play by the rules," he said.
Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210