WASHINGTON (ABP) – Americans United for Separation of Church and State asked the Internal Revenue Service Oct.11 to investigate whether a Southern Baptist pastor in the news for calling Mormonism a “cult” broke the law by posting on his church's website videos of himself endorsing a candidate.
Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas recently endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for president, saying he does not believe fellow GOP candidate Mitt Romney is a Christian. Barry Lynn, executive director of the church-state watchdog group, acknowledged the pastor’s right to endorse Perry as a private citizen but said Jeffress ran afoul of the law when he posted media interviews repeating the endorsement on the First Baptist website.
“Pastor Jeffress is trying to do an end-run around the law,” Lynn said. “The IRS should put a stop to it.”
Lynn said Jeffress apparently thinks that including a statement that the media clips are not a church endorsement solves the problem, but the IRS has never said that adding disclaimers to candidate endorsements makes them permissible.
Lynn said the IRS warns churches to be careful about what they post on their websites. An IRS publication on election-year activities by tax-exempt non-profits states: “A website is a form of communication. If an organization posts something on its website that favors or opposes a candidate for public office, the organization will be treated the same as if it distributed printed material, oral statements or broadcasts that favored or opposed a candidate.”
In August Jeffress told his congregation he would never endorse a political candidate from the pulpit, specifically because of the IRS regulation that says churches taking advantage of tax-exempt benefits must refrain from taking sides in political campaigns.
“Liberal groups threaten churches all the time with loss of their tax-exempt status,” Jeffress said Aug. 28 during an “Ask the Pastor” Sunday night worship service. “If I were a prophet I would prophesy that somewhere during these next 12 months somebody is going to make a charge against me or the church threatening our tax-exempt status.”
“That has happened to me in other churches before,” Jeffress said. “I couldn’t care less about those kinds of threats.”
Jeffress said he dismissed warnings against candidate endorsement as a “hollow threat by liberals.” Despite that, Jeffress said, “I cannot imagine any situation where I would officially endorse a candidate for office,” in part because he would not want to alienate church members who hold different political views.
After endorsing Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington Oct. 7, Jeffress came back to his pulpit the following Sunday to explain that he changed his mind about non-endorsement while preaching a series of sermons on how a Christian should vote.
“I believe that as Christians and as Americans that it is important for us to elect Christian leaders who embrace biblical principles,” Jeffress told church members Oct. 9. “I believe God does bless a nation that honors him and his word, and he rejects a nation that dishonors him and his word. So as a private citizen and as an American I felt like I ought to use personally whatever influence I might have to try to elect a godly leader and place him in the White House.”
Jeffress said media interest in the endorsement has provided him with opportunities to “point people toward Jesus Christ” and to warn others about “false religions.”
“Islam, Hindusim, Buddhism and Mormonism are all false religions,” Jeffress said. “And I stand by those statements.”
The Catholic League joined the fray Oct. 12, pointing out that Jeffress previously described the Roman Catholic Church as the outgrowth of a “corruption” coming from a “cult-like pagan religion” that demonstrates “the genius of Satan.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.