Should pastors be allowed to preach politics?

Some preachers around the country spent yesterday endorsing John McCain for president, apparently in violation of IRS rules that do not allow non-profit organizations who have a tax-exempt status from actively engaging in campaigning for an individual candidate.

Pastor Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church was one of them. So was George Marin at Grace Christian Church in Albert Lea.

gus_booth.jpg“I’d like to see that the IRS is not in the business of prohibiting religious speech, that’s for sure,” Booth told me this afternoon. “They have made a statute that is in competition with the Constitution. I feel like the Constitution has given me a First Amendment right to say what I want to say and I don’t lose that when I step behind my pulpit.”

This isn’t the first time Booth has challenged the law. In May he delivered a sermon about the Democratic candidates for president.

“If you are a Christian, you cannot support Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama….Both Hillary and Barack favor the shedding of innocent blood (abortion) and the legalization of the abomination of homosexual marriage.”

Has he heard anything from the IRS yet?

“That’s the only question I cannot answer, because of my attorney’s advice,” Booth said.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, called Booth’s actions last May “a flagrant violation of federal tax law.”

“Booth is free to endorse anyone he wants to as a private citizen,” Lynn said in a press release announcing the filing of a complaint with the IRS. “But when he is standing in his tax-exempt pulpit as the top official of a tax-exempt religious organization, he must lay partisanship aside. The IRS needs to look into this apparent violation of federal tax law.”

“I don’t have to pay for free speech. We’re a non-profit organization and we’re by nature not even taxable. So we don’t even have to be a 501-C3 to not pay taxes. We’re not taxable. We’re non profit so you can’t tax us,” Booth says.

He won’t be preaching politics again anytime soon. “I’ve already done it twice, so I doubt that I’m going to preach again this election year on it simply because when you preach on the same subject over and over again, you’re not being a good pastor… it’s irrelevant after a few Sundays.”

Booth says his congregation has been supportive of his challenge to the law. But he also acknowledges he hasn’t seen any cars in the church’s parking lot sporting Barack Obama bumper stickers.

Religious scholar Martin Marty, sees no legitimate debate about religious freedom in the “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” protest…

No doubt myriad violations occur in pulpits and church bulletins, but most of them tend to be casual or subtle or only semi-substantial. The Pulpit Freedom Sunday of the Alliance Defense Fund does not want to be casual or subtle or less than substantially substantial. The preachers it backs and propels want to make this a law-defying act of “freedom.” We can be sure that opponents of this generally right-wing political cause will be provoked into counter-testing, asking the IRS and the feds to insist on support of law. Is this a real “pulpit freedom” issue? Some want to compare it to Martin Luther King and conscientious objectors and any who appeal to a “higher law.” But King and the objectors know that they are vulnerable to arrest or penalties, and have often paid them by sitting in jails. The Pulpit Freedom advocates appeal to no “higher law;” they simply want the freedom to break existing laws.

A call to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has not been returned.

Booth is appearing appeared on the second hour of NPR’s Talk of the Nation.