In a predominantly black church in a city known for its past racial strife, Bishop Robert Smith is taking sides. His targets: Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and federal restrictions barring Smith's endorsement of Republican John McCain.
At the end of a recent sermon, Smith told about 50 worshippers at his Word of Outreach Christian Center: "I will be voting for John McCain and Sarah Palin."
Smith, who is black, said neighbors and friends have questioned why he isn't backing Obama, the first black presidential nominee from a major party.
"I just tell them it's not about race to me," said Smith, who was a delegate to the Republican National Convention. "It's about principle. I wouldn't care if it's my mother. If she isn't for life or for heterosexual relationships, I wouldn't vote for my momma."
Smith's sermon was aimed at fighting an Internal Revenue Service policy that prohibits charities and churches from involvement in political campaigns. Smith said he didn't tell parishioners anything they didn't already know from talking to him at dinners or in private.
"In my investigation of the candidates, neither one of them meets the Biblical standard 100 percent," Smith said during the Oct. 5 homily. "But only one of them has the basic understanding of when life begins. Only that one can be trusted to ensure that life does not end prematurely."
Wants to trigger probe
Smith said he would send a recording of the sermon to the IRS in hopes of triggering an investigation that would lead courts to abolish restrictions on church involvement in politics. He said what he did is not unlike what other pastors do regularly.
"In the black community, they do it all the time and they do it in other communities as well," Smith said in an interview after the sermon.
Smith isn't just testing the law. He's also testing his predominantly black congregation and neighborhood by backing McCain, in a city that was torn by racial strife when schools were desegregated 51 years ago.
"You never heard him once say you should vote for this person. He just said, `This is who I'm going to vote for and here are the principles behind it,'" said Angela Roberson, who has been attending the church for about a year and also supports McCain.
Experts say sermons such as Smith's violate IRS rules and federal law. 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 political campaigns.
Smith was one of 33 pastors who had planned to make pointed sermons about political candidates in September in an effort orchestrated by the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which hopes to challenge federal law and IRS rules on political speech by pastors. Scrapped because of a missed flight, Smith finally delivered the sermon last week.
"For the last 54 years, the tax restrictions have been used to silence and intimidate churches on those issues," said Erik Stanley, a senior attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund.
IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis would not comment on Smith's sermon but said the agency would monitor any allegations of political activity by churches.