Pastor Luke Emrich prepared his sermon this week knowing his remarks could invite an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. But that was the whole point, so Emrich forged ahead with his message: Thou shalt vote according to the Scriptures.
"I'm telling you straight up, I would choose life," 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.
Copies to be sent to IRS
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. Critics call it unnecessary, divisive and unlikely to succeed.
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 Republican John McCain on abortion and gay marriage and concluded that McCain "holds more to a biblical world view."
He said he urged the Southern Baptist congregation to vote for McCain.
"The basic thrust was this was not a matter of endorsing, it's a First Amendment issue," 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," Blair said in an interview.
Because the pastors were speaking in their official capacity as clergy, the sermons are clear violations of IRS rules, said Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University. But even if the IRS rises to the bait and a legal fight ensues, Tuttle said there's "virtually no chance" courts will strike down the prohibition.
"The government is allowed, as long as it has a reasonable basis for doing it, to treat political and nonpolitical speech differently, and that's essentially what it's done here," Tuttle said.
Not all the sermons came off as planned. Bishop Robert Smith Sr. of Word of Outreach Center in Little Rock said he had to postpone until next week because of a missed flight. 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."
Pastors wrote sermons
Stanley said the pastors alone wrote the sermons, with the framework that they be "a biblical evaluation of the candidates for office with a specific recommendation." That could be a flat-out endorsement or opposition to one or both candidates, he said.
The legal group 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.
Under the IRS code, places of worship can distribute voter guides, run nonpartisan voter registration drives and hold forums on issues, among other things. However, they cannot endorse a candidate, and their political activity cannot be biased for or against a candidate, directly or indirectly — a sometimes murky line.
The IRS said in a statement it is aware of Sunday's initiative and "will monitor the situation and take action as appropriate."
The agency has stepped up oversight of political activity in churches in recent years after receiving a flurry of complaints from the 2004 campaign. The IRS reported issuing written advisories against 42 churches for improper politically activity in 2004.
The ban on churches intervening in candidate campaigns survived a court challenge when a U.S. appellate court upheld the revocation of tax-exempt status of a New York church that took out a newspaper ad urging Christians to vote against Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election.
Opposition to Sunday's sermon initiative was widespread. A United Church of Christ minister in Ohio rallied other religious leaders to file a complaint with the IRS. Roman Catholic Archbishop John Favalora of Miami wrote that the archdiocese abides by IRS rules in part because "we can do a lot for our communities with the money we save by being tax-exempt."
Three former IRS officials also asked the agency to investigate the initiative, questioning the ethics of lawyers asking ministers to break the law.
Two-thirds of adults oppose political endorsements from churches and other places of worship and 52 percent want them out of politics altogether, according to a survey last month from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
"It is good public policy that in exchange for the valuable privilege of a tax exemption, you cannot turn your church or charity into a political action committee," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Church and State, which intends to report the participating churches to the IRS, along with any other churches acting independently.