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South Dakota Pastor Backpedals on Illegal Candidate Endorsement

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Yesterday Americans United asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate a South Dakota church whose pastor openly admitted that he endorsed a gubernatorial candidate from the pulpit.

The Rev. H. Wayne Williams of Liberty Baptist Tabernacle in Rapid City hasn’t been shy about what he did. In fact, state Sen. Gordon Howie, the candidate Williams endorsed during a May 16 church service, sent out a press release bragging about it.

Howie had challenged churches to endorse him and was ecstatic when one did.

Howie’s press release asserts that Williams “became one of the first to accept the challenge, adding an official endorsement of Gordon Howie for Governor to a message delivered during his Sunday night services.”

The endorsement was also reported in the Rapid City Journal. But just to be sure, I called Rev. Williams June 8 and asked him if the reports were accurate. He assured me that they were. He also insisted that the IRS has no authority over him and said he has a right to endorse candidates from the pulpit.

It looked like an open-and-shut case, so AU sent a complaint to the IRS. It should be a quick matter to resolve since Williams has admitted he broke the law.

Lo and behold, the pastor is now changing his tune. Williams told the Associated Press yesterday that he merely talked about Howie’s beliefs and principles but never instructed the congregation on how to vote.

“I simply preach from the pulpit principles, and when someone stands with our principles, I say this person is standing with the same principles we stand on and are worthy of our consideration,” Williams said. “I told them vote on the basis of your own conscience.”

The problem is, that’s not what Williams told me on Tuesday. He freely admitted the accuracy of the reports that said he had endorsed Howie. He was defiant, ranting and raving about how he doesn’t have to listen to the IRS or follow its rules.

During our conversation, Williams was feisty. He demanded to know why I cared what his church did. I explained that he had broken the law and must be held accountable for it. He continued to insist it was none of my business, asserting, “You’re not a policeman.”

To this I replied, “That’s right – but if I saw a guy robbing a bank, I’d sure call the cops.”

Williams even told the Rapid City Journal: “I fear God’s laws. I don’t fear man’s laws.”

I’m not surprised that Williams is now trying to change his story. Maybe someone got to him and explained that it’s not cool to violate federal law. Nevertheless, Williams’ dodge looks like a sloppy attempt to cover up his misdeeds.

Federal law is clear on this question: Non-profit organizations, including houses of worship, must refrain from endorsing or opposing candidate for public office or give up their tax exemptions. Churches exist to help people grow in a spiritual sense, not to become cogs in a candidate’s political machine.

Furthermore, Rev. Williams’ insistence that he has a free speech right to endorse candidates in church is fallacious. That argument has already been tried in federal court – and it failed.

Federal law bars houses of worship from intervening in electoral campaigns. Williams admits that’s what he did.

All that remains is for the IRS to do its job.


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