- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2008

WEST BEND, Wis. | Pastor Luke Emrich prepared his sermon this week knowing that his remarks could invite an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service.

But that was the whole point, so Mr. Emrich forged ahead with his message: Thou shalt vote according to the Scriptures.

“I’m telling you straight up, I would choose life,” Mr. Emrich told about 100 worshippers Sunday at New Life Church, a nondenominational evangelical congregation about 40 miles from Milwaukee.

“I would cast a vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin,” he said. “But friends, it’s your choice to make, it’s not my choice. I won’t be in the voting booth with you.”

All told, 33 pastors in 22 states were to make pointed recommendations about political candidates Sunday, an effort orchestrated by the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund.

The conservative legal group plans to send copies of the pastors’ sermons to the IRS with hope of setting off a legal fight and abolishing restrictions on church involvement in politics. Congress amended the tax code in 1954 to state that certain nonprofit groups, including secular charities and places of worship, can lose their tax-exempt status for intervening in a campaign involving candidates.

Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said hundreds of churches volunteered to take part in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Thirty-three were chosen, in part for “strategic criteria related to litigation” Stanley wouldn’t discuss.

Pastor Jody Hice of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Bethlehem, Ga., said in an interview Sunday that his sermon compared Democrat Barack Obama and Mr. McCain on abortion and gay marriage and concluded that the Republican candidate “holds more to a biblical world view.”

He said he urged the Southern Baptist congregation to vote for Mr. McCain.

“The basic thrust was this was not a matter of endorsing, it’s a First Amendment issue,” Mr. Hice said. “To say the church can’t deal with moral and societal issues if it enters into the political arena is just wrong, it’s unconstitutional.”

At the independent Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, Okla., pastor Paul Blair said he told his congregation, “As a Christian and as an American citizen, I will be voting for John McCain.”

“It’s absolutely vital to proclaim the truth and not be afraid to proclaim the truth from our pulpits,” Mr. Blair said in an interview.

Not all the sermons came off as planned. Bishop Robert Smith Sr. of Word of Outreach Center in Little Rock, Ark., said he had to postpone until next week because of a missed flight. Mr. Smith, a delegate to this month’s Republican National Convention, declined to say whom he would endorse.

Promotional materials for the initiative said each pastor would prepare the sermon with “legal assistance of the ADF to ensure maximum effectiveness in challenging the IRS.”

The ADF declined to release a list of participants in advance, citing concerns about potential disruptions at services. A list and excerpts from sermons will be made public early this week, with the delay necessary for lawyers to review the material, the group said.

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