The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has backed off an audit – for now – of a pro-life Minnesota pastor. The pastor had told his congregation that they could not in good conscience vote for Sens. Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, because of their stand on abortion and other issues in conflict with Christian principles.
Pastor Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church spoke out against the candidates as part of a plan by the Alliance Defense Fund to challenge a half-century-old rule that prohibits churches and non-profit organizations from speaking for or against candidates during election campaigns.
"The IRS is closing this examination because of a pending issue regarding the procedure used to initiate this inquiry," the federal tax collection agency informed Pastor Booth. In that letter, they stated they reserve the right to resume their investigation once a "procedural issue" is resolved.
However the news has disappointed Pastor Booth and the Alliance Defense Fund, who had hoped to force the issue of the constitutionality of the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the Federal Tax Code. ADF had wanted to challenge the IRS in court over the constitutionality of muzzling pastors’ First Amendment protections, pointing out that historically churches had enjoyed tax exempt status in the United States long before the creation of the IRS.
The current rules, ADF says, allows groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State to take advantage of the vague guidelines in the tax code regarding what pastors can talk to their congregation about, and threaten their churches with IRS investigations that could result in loss of their tax exempt status. As it stands, the situation creates for churches an atmosphere of "intimidation and fear," because the IRS continues to enforce the Johnson Amendment without issuing clear guidelines.
In 2008, the Alliance Defense Fund began its "Pulpit Initiative," offering its legal services pro bono to pastors willing to speak out on the cultural and social issues at stake in the general election and challenge the IRS in order to bring about a judicial review of the law. Booth was among thirty other pastors that took ADF up on the offer, and wrote two sermons – one in May before the primary, and the second in September for the general election – on the moral qualifications of the candidates, which he then sent to the IRS.
The tax agency began its investigation of Warroad Community Church and five other churches in August 2008 after Americans United got wind of the challenge and demanded an investigation.
"Pastors have a right to speak freely from their pulpits. Something is very wrong in America when free speech is held hostage by bungling bureaucracies," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. "This latest action from the IRS continues to leave churches in limbo when it comes to speaking freely from their pulpits. It illustrates everything that is wrong with the current enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. After an 11-month audit, it is disingenuous for the IRS to simply close the file and walk away as if nothing happened."
"Instead of standing and fighting in court, the IRS prefers to run the other way," charged Stanley. "ADF would likely have waived any complaint about procedural concerns involved in the investigation stage of the audit in order to reach the merits of the case and clarify the law.
"Once a federal court has an opportunity to review the Johnson Amendment, we believe it will not take long for the court to strike it down as unconstitutional. Pastors have the right to preach from their pulpits on all issues, including candidates and elections. No pastor should fear the IRS."