- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A South Dakota minister says he wants to do for religious freedom what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did for civil rights.

The Rev. H. Wayne Williams, pastor of Liberty Baptist Tabernacle in Rapid City, last month endorsed GOP state Sen. Gordon Howie in the South Dakota governor’s race, in defiance of the Internal Revenue Service and a federal court ruling and in hopes of producing a landmark constitutional test case.

At issue is an IRS regulation called the Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954, that says that 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the section of the tax code under which most churches file, cannot endorse a specific political candidate and retain its nonprofit classification.

“Why is it that I cannot walk with my Master, my Lord, in speaking on government issues?” asked Mr. Williams, citing the example of other religious leaders such as King, John the Baptist and biblical prophets, all of whom involved themselves in political issues.

Mr. Howie’s campaign, which had actively solicited support from the state’s pastors, touted Mr. Williams‘ endorsement in a press release last month.

Mr. Williams said he will fight for his right to speak from the pulpit whatever he sees most fitting for his congregation, regardless of the consequences.

“I would welcome the history of my Baptist forefathers in going to jail over these issues,” he said. “I will not be silenced by intimidation.”

The state of Rhode Island, for example, traces its founding to Roger Williams’ flight from Puritan Massachusetts and its official church to establish a colony with religious freedom. He set up the New World’s first Baptist church in Rhode Island in 1639.

The Rapid City pastor is working with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative-leaning group that defends religious freedom.

Erik Stanley, an attorney for the organization, said the fund has been hoping that by encouraging pastors to break the federal tax code restrictions, they could get a test case to court and have the law declared an infringement of the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

“This is your bread-and-butter civil rights case,” Mr. Stanley said.

The court ruled on the Johnson Amendment in a 1992 case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that a church does not have a constitutional right to endorse a political candidate, but can speak on political issues.

Although the original idea was to prevent entanglement of church and state, Mr. Stanley said, the Johnson Amendment winds up giving the state oversight of the content of churches’ political speech in order to determine whether it constitutes “endorsement” of a candidate.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the question of whether the IRS can enforce regulation of a pastor’s endorsement is not complicated given the 1992 ruling.

“I think the answer is ‘Yes, you can,’ and this is not a big ploy from Lyndon Johnson,” he said.

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