A northern Minnesota minister and 2008 GOP National Convention delegate has the IRS off his trail, at least for now, but the pastor pledges he will keep preaching politics from the pulpit.
The federal tax-collection agency has notified Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church that it is "closing this examination" into complaints about his politicking from the pulpit, a possible violation of federal tax law that could have put his church's tax-exempt status in jeopardy.
In a letter to Booth dated July 7 and made available Tuesday by a legal alliance of Christian attorneys, the agency said it halted the proceedings because of a "pending issue regarding the procedure used to initiate the inquiry." The letter did not elaborate on what the "pending issue" might be.
At the same time, the IRS said it reserves the right to "commence a future inquiry" when it sees fit.
Booth said Wednesday that he is disappointed that the IRS is declining to "bring clarity to the law," and he vowed to keep preaching about politicians he likes and doesn't like from the pulpit.
"I plan to give an election sermon every year," Booth said in a telephone interview from his church.
Then, noting that 2010 brings races for governor and eight seats in Congress, he said, "I'm going to come back bigger and better next year [and say] this guy needs to go and this guy needs to stay."
The IRS official assigned to Booth's case was not available for comment Wednesday afternoon. IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis declined to comment on why the agency dropped its investigation.
Last year, the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed complaints with the IRS about pastors who made political endorsements or pointed comments about candidates.
Americans United spokesman Rob Boston suspects that the IRS is reviewing its pursuit of Booth because it suffered a court setback in another Minnesota case, when its investigation of a church was not approved by a high enough agency official. That recent case involved Brooklyn Park megachurch founder and senior pastor James (Mac) Hammond and his endorsement from the pulpit of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Booth endorsed 2008 presidential candidate John McCain from the pulpit, saying the Republican's positions lined up more closely with biblical teachings than those of Democrat Barack Obama.
The preacher's endorsement was part of the Alliance Defense Fund's "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." The Arizona-based fund said at the time that Booth and other pastors around the country were exercising "their First Amendment right to preach on the subject, despite federal tax regulations that prohibit intervening or participating in a political campaign."
The fund's senior legal counsel, Erik Stanley, said Tuesday that the IRS's latest action "continues to leave churches in limbo when it comes to speaking freely from their pulpits. ... After an 11-month audit, it is disingenuous for the IRS to simply close the file and walk away as if nothing happened."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482