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Some clergy flout tax law, choose political sides

Ministers tie scripture to candidates

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post / September 29, 2008
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CROWN POINT, Ind. - Defying a federal law that prohibits US clergy from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit, an evangelical Christian minister told his congregation yesterday that voting for Senator Barack Obama would be evidence of "severe moral schizophrenia."

The Rev. Ron Johnson told worshipers that the Democratic presidential nominee's positions on abortion and gay partnerships exist "in direct opposition to God's truth as He has revealed it in the scriptures." Johnson showed slides contrasting the candidates' views but stopped short of endorsing Obama's Republican opponent, Senator John McCain.

Johnson and 32 other pastors around the country set out yesterday to break the rules, hoping to generate a legal battle that will prompt federal courts to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship.

The ministers contend they have a constitutional right to advise their worshipers how to vote. As Johnson put it during a break between sermons, "The point that the IRS says you can't do it, I'm saying you're wrong."

The campaign, organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a socially conservative legal consortium based in Arizona, has gotten the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. The agency, alerted by opponents, pledged to "monitor the situation and take action as appropriate."

Each campaign season brings allegations that a member of the clergy has crossed a line set out in a 1954 amendment to the tax code that says nonprofit, tax-exempt entities may not "participate in, or intervene in . . . any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."

This time, the church action is concerted. Yet while the ministers say the rules stifle religious expression, their opponents contend that the tax laws are essential to protect the separation of church and state.

In an open letter Saturday, a United Church of Christ minister, the Rev. Eric Williams, warned that many members of the clergy are "exchanging their historic religious authority for a fleeting promise of political power," to the detriment of their churches.

"The role of the church - of congregation, synagogue, temple and mosque - and of its religious leaders is to stand apart from government, to prophetically speak truth to power," Williams wrote, "and to encourage a national dialogue that transcends the divisiveness of electoral politics and preserves for every citizen our 'first liberty.' "

In the modern red-brick Living Stone Church in Crown Point, a town of 28,000 residents 50 miles southeast of Chicago, Johnson explained why he believes a minister should dispense political advice. "We want people when you prick them, they bleed the word of God," Johnson said.

Johnson said ministers have a responsibility to guide their flocks in worldly matters, including politics: "The issue is not 'Are we legislating morality?' This issue is 'Whose morality are we legislating?' "

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