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Religious Right Pushes Churches to Openly Defy the Law and Campaign for Tea Party and Other Conservative Candidates

As organizations that claim tax-exempt status, churches cannot directly intervene in elections. A religious right group is trying to change that.

When South Dakota gubernatorial hopeful Gordon Howie put out a call for pastors to endorse him from the pulpit, the Rev. H. Wayne Williams was quick to respond.

Williams, pastor of Liberty Baptist Tabernacle in Rapid City, endorsed the Republican candidate during a church service on May 16.

An ecstatic Howie, the self-professed “Tea Party” favorite, quickly issued a press release praising the action.

“Last week, Howie challenged South Dakota churches and their pastors to become more politically active in the stretch run to the June 8th primary election, urging pastors to endorse candidates and advocate specific issues from the pulpit,” read the Howie media statement. “Reverend H. Wayne Williams, Pastor of Liberty Baptist Tabernacle in Rapid City, became one of the first to accept the challenge, adding an official endorsement of Gordon Howie for Governor to a message delivered during his Sunday night services.”

The release quoted Williams, who said, “I believe Gordon Howie has clearly demonstrated the courage of character and conviction to take a position that has long been forgotten and lost in this country. I’m glad that this issue has been brought to the forefront of public conversation. It is high time that churches return to the role that they’ve occupied historically in guiding their flocks in making election decisions.”

But not everyone agrees with this kind of blatant church electioneering. Williams seems to have been the only pastor to endorse Howie from the pulpit, and several South Dakota religious leaders spoke out publicly against pulpit partisanship.

Among them was Howie’s own pastor, Bishop Lorenzo Kelly of Faith Temple Church in Rapid City.

“I have encouraged our people to be participants in the political arena and showed them the scriptures that back it up,” Kelly told the Rapid City Journal. “But I have not from the pulpit endorsed him. I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t put my church in jeopardy of anything.”

South Dakota voters were also not impressed. On Election Day, Howie, a state senator running against four other Republicans, took fourth place with just 12 percent of the primary vote.

The church endorsement scheme was also legally problematic. Federal law prohibits all non-profit organizations that hold 501(c)(3) status from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. The Internal Revenue Service has repeatedly reminded churches to stay out of elections.

Nevertheless, some pastors continue to insist they have a right to tell their congregants which candidates to vote for or against. They are often aided and abetted by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), an Arizona-based Religious Right legal group founded by right-wing television and radio preachers in 1993.

Alerted by members in South Dakota, Americans United began investigating the Williams affair. In early June, an Americans United staffer contacted Williams. He not only admitted that he had endorsed Howie during a church service but brazenly asserted that the IRS has no authority over him or his church. He was defiant and argumentative.

On June 10, Americans United filed a formal complaint with the IRS over Williams’ actions.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn pointed out that Williams has admitted that he violated the law by endorsing Howie.

“Furthermore, he asserted that the IRS has no authority over his church and that he has a legal right to endorse candidates from the pulpit,” wrote Lynn to the federal tax agency. “Liberty Baptist Tabernacle appears to be in clear violation of federal law. Accordingly, I am asking the IRS to investigate this matter and enforce the law as necessary.”

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