Americans United for Separation of Church and State today asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate a Dallas church whose pastor has been posting videos of himself endorsing Texas Gov. Rick Perry on the church’s website.
Americans United says Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church has run afoul of federal tax law. AU notes that Jeffress has the right to offer a personal endorsement of Perry but that he may not put these endorsements on his tax-exempt church’s website.
“Pastor Jeffress is trying to do an end-run around the law,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The IRS should put a stop to it.”
On Oct. 8, Jeffress appeared at a Religious Right gathering in Washington, D.C., called the Values Voter Summit to introduce Perry. During the introduction, Jeffress praised Perry as the best GOP candidate and explained why he believes Perry deserves support.
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Jeffress later posted a video of this introduction on the church’s website. He also posted a video of his Oct. 10 appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” during which he repeated the Perry endorsement.
On the church website, Jeffress includes a line reading, “The posting of video clips and media accounts of Dr. Robert Jeffress’ recent media appearances does not constitute First Baptist Dallas’ endorsement of any political candidate. As Dr. Jeffress has noted in multiple interviews, his political views and endorsements do not represent the church, but him personally.”
This language, AU reminded the IRS, does not save the church.
“In fact, the Internal Revenue Service has never said that disclaimers like this ameliorate candidate endorsements or make them permissible,” wrote Lynn to the tax agency.
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Lynn pointed out that an IRS publication called “Election Year Activities and the Prohibition on Political Campaign Intervention for Section 501(c)(3) Organizations” warns churches and other nonprofits to be careful about what they post on their websites. The IRS states, “A web site is a form of communication. If an organization posts something on its web site 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.”
This isn’t Jeffress’ first brush with this issue. In 1998, while serving as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas, Jeffress checked out two books with gay themes from the local public library and refused to return them. He then urged members of his congregation to vote against city council members if they refused to ban the tomes. A local newspaper reported that Jeffress challenged his congregation to “vote out the infidels who would deny God and his word.”