Politicking from the Pulpit

During this political season, when stakes and emotions are high on both the national and local levels, it may feel only natural to try to sway large groups of people to your point of view or to support a local candidate.

Just don’t do it at church.

Under the IRS code, churches and religious organizations, in return for being tax-exempt, are prohibited from supporting or opposing a candidate or a political party, but in this election year, we’ve seen:

• A Baptist church using its marquee to ask motorists to pray that the president is replaced.

• The same Baptist church posting a large sign pushing for the election of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

• Catholic bishops telling their parishioners how they should vote on two state amendments on Nov. 6.

• A deacon urging a Catholic congregation to register to vote and then vote against the re-election of President Obama.

• A Catholic priest being admonished for speaking against the re-election of the president in a June Mass.

• Jacksonville City Councilmembers being recognized by First Baptist Church for voting against amending Jacksonville’s human rights ordinance.

• Several Jacksonville-area churches participating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday claiming they have a First Amendment right to speak what they please from the pulpit, despite IRS rules.

While it is legal for church leaders to urge parishioners to vote their consciences and urge them to vote on moral issues, churches and religious organizations “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Violation of the rule, Internal Revenue Service Code (c) (3), can result in an organization losing its tax-exempt status.

For decades, candidates have made appearances at houses of worship. Mayor Alvin Brown, while running for office last year, campaigned for votes at several African-American churches, which recognized him, but did not endorse him.

Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, based in Washington, D.C., said there are only a few problems in Northeast Florida and it is not known how many churches run afoul of the law because of IRS secrecy rules.

“Most members of the clergy follow the law,” he said, but there are exceptions.

On July 22, Father Dan Nelson of St. Catherine’s Catholic Church in Orange Park acknowledged that he told church members at Mass not to vote for President Obama. He said he realized afterward he should not have said it.

“He was told he crossed the line and to refrain from making further comments that endorse political candidates or political parties,” said Kathleen Bagg, a spokesperson for the Diocese of St. Augustine.

Nelson, who retired Aug. 17, was also given a copy of a booklet from the Florida Catholic Conference, spelling out what is appropriate and legal for Catholics in the election, Bagg said.

From the same church, L. Ann Bergeron, in a letter to Folio Weekly, wrote that on a recent Sunday, the deacon began telling the congregation that “the president and this administration have taken away religious freedom and that the Catholic Church has every right to eliminate contraception as part of women’s health care benefits.”

Later, the deacon repeated three times: “If it burns right here in your belly, then get yourself registered and vote against this president.”

On Sept. 25, Bishop Felipe J. Estevez issued a message to be delivered at Mass to Catholics in the Diocese of St. Augustine, telling them it was their privilege and responsibility to vote. A copy of the message is on the Diocese website.

“I would not tell you how to vote or who to vote for, but it is my responsibility to remind you, for us Catholics, some issues are never morally acceptable,” he said. He mentioned abortion, embryonic stem cell research and attempts at human cloning. Catholics, he said, should work to preserve traditional marriages between a man and a woman.

Estevez also urged Catholics to vote yes on two Florida amendments on the November ballot: Amendment 6, which prohibits the spending of tax dollars on abortion; and Amendment 8, allowing tax funds to be allocated to faith-based organizations — a ban that has been in effect in Florida since 1885, guaranteeing the separation of church and state.

Outside the First Conservative Baptist Church in Mandarin, the marquee recently read, “Pray for our President to be replaced,” while a large Romney sign was placed on the lawn.

The church’s pastor, Gene Youngblood, did not reply to a request for comment.

Youngblood was in the news seven years ago for posting anti-Muslim messages on the church’s marquee.

In September, about a month after the Jacksonville City Council voted down a proposed expansion of the human rights ordinance 10-9, which would have protected gays and lesbians from discrimination, the First Baptist Church praised the councilmembers who voted in the majority by introducing them and their families at a service.

While most priests and pastors follow IRS rules, some clergy believe they have a First Amendment right to speak their minds.

On Oct. 7, about 1,500 pastors nationwide participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The event is sponsored by the Alliance Defending Freedom, which eventually hopes to go to court to try to have the IRS ban on political activity, known as the Johnson Amendment, struck down. The change to the tax code, proposed by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, was approved in 1954.

Six Jacksonville-area churches were listed on the group’s website as having participated in the event, but none replied to emails seeking comment. They are Cornerstone Church, Crossroads Baptist, Crossroads Church, First Conservative Baptist Church, Jacksonville Baptist Church and Landmark Baptist Church.

“Pastors should decide what they preach from the pulpit, not the IRS,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley in a news release. “It’s outrageous for pastors and churches to be threatened or punished by the government for applying biblical teachings to all areas of life, including candidates and elections. The question is, ‘Who should decide the content of sermons, pastors or the IRS?’ ”

Bob Allen, managing editor of Jacksonville-based Associated Baptist Press, an independent news service created by and for Baptists, said while he hasn’t seen an increase in churches becoming involved in politics, the issues have changed.

“Several years ago, I saw a lot of Baptists mobilizing around opposition to state lotteries, then it was casino gambling and later video poker. A generation before, it was liquor by the drink and blue laws,” he said. “Now the popular causes seem to be the things like the human rights ordinance that you see in Jacksonville.”

“Southern Baptists were influenced to a large extent by the Religious Right, which tries to stake out the ‘Christian’ position on hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage and tends to be quite partisan,” Allen said.

The Pew Research Center, in a study published in March, said 54 percent of Americans questioned responded that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters, while 40 percent said they should express their views on social and political questions.

This is the third survey in the past four years in which more people say churches should keep out of politics.

In a survey printed in the Florida Baptist Witness in early October, about 90 percent of pastors believe they should not endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit.

The LifeWay Research poll survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors found only 10 percent believe pastors should endorse candidates from the pulpit.

Ron Word