Virtual Voices

Pastor invites IRS investigation

Religion

Here's a twist on the usual: a law firm is challenging the Internal Revenue Service to investigate its client.

The law firm is the Becket Fund - a non-profit, interfaith firm devoted to protecting religious expression - and the client is Kenneth Taylor, pastor of Calvary Assembly of God in Algoma, Wis. An open letter invites the IRS to investigate a political sermon Taylor delivered during the last election. Pastors often shy away from political sermons to avoid IRS investigations and loss of tax-exempt status. (Watch the sermon, censored in case of an investigation, here.)

Taylor challenges the IRS: "What government does and says often has profound moral consequences. As a preacher, I am obliged to say something about it, and I shouldn't have to worry about how the government might retaliate."

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Tax regulations prohibit church "intervention" in a campaign but IRS enforcement is ambiguous because the IRS sees the tax code as a living, ever-changing document. "This provides the maximum flexibility for the IRS and minimum flexibility for houses of worship," said Roger Severino, legal counsel for the Becket Fund." Severino said the ambiguity intimidates pastors and the Becket Fund is seeking to clarify the code.

Severino said that a pastor speaking to his congregation is protected religious speech. It is not an intervention in a campaign because the forum is private, not public: "There's a very big difference between a full page ad condemning a candidate running for political office and a religious organization speaking to itself." The Becket Fund maintains that a pastor should even be able to endorse or condemn certain candidates from the pulpit, as long as he is speaking privately to his congregation.

Severino and Taylor point to a long tradition of political sermonizers, including John Witherspoon and Martin Luther King, Jr. The regulation about campaign intervention has only existed since 1954, Severino said: "For a hundred and seventy odd years of our history, people were allowed to speak freely without fear of losing any teax exemption and our country was not turned into a theocracy because of it, not even close."

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