After reports in the South Dakota press about the pastor’s May 16 endorsement of Mr. Howie, Mr. Lynn wrote on June 10 to the IRS about what he called “a recent example of intervention in a political campaign by a church in South Dakota.”
“Liberty Baptist appears to be in clear violation of federal law,” Mr. Lynn wrote. “Accordingly I am asking the IRS to investigate this matter and enforce the law accordingly.”
The IRS has not indicated whether it will pursue an investigation of the South Dakota church.
To the liberal-leaning Americans United, any political speech in religious meeting places should be monitored to keep churches away from politics; the Alliance Defense Fund, however, sees such heavy regulation as a further entanglement of church and state.
But Mr. Lynn called the Johnson Amendment “no more entanglement than giving a church tax exemption in the first place.”
The issue of church politicking also excites partisan divide. Conservatives say evangelical and other churches sympathetic to the religious right have come under pressure about endorsing candidates under the watchful eye of left-leaning pressure groups. By contrast, liberal congregations, especially black churches, freely say what they want without shame or consequence, they argue.
Rick Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said there is a fine line between religious freedom and allowing nonprofits to become mouthpieces for political campaigns.
“The line between religion and politics has never been clear,” he said. “Its a line between justice and just funneling candidates money.”
That uncertainty is the reason the Alliance Defense Fund hopes to get a test case to court.
Mr. Garnett said he does not think such a case will return to court because the IRS does not like to aggressively enforce tax laws regarding pulpit speech.
“It’s a really tricky business when church’s sermons start getting too political,” he said.
The ban on political campaign activity does not restrict leaders of organizations from expressing their views on political matters if they are speaking for themselves as individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about issues of public policy. However, for their organizations to remain tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.
Mr. Williams sees such a law, and Americans United’s attempt to enforce it, as “shackling the hands of the churches” and using intimidation to prevent them from exercising their religious freedoms.
“A pastor is responsible for teaching his people - not controlling them, but informing them,” he said. “A true shepherd informs his people and lets them make their own decisions.”