By Bob Smietana | The Tennessean
The Rev. Glenn Denton of the 2,500-member Hillcrest Baptist Church in Lebanon doesn't care what the tax man says.
He's not going to stop telling people who God wants them to vote for -- and in his opinion, it's not Barack Obama.
"I would stand where I stood if I knew tomorrow that they were going to jerk our tax exemption," he said.
Revenue Service rules ban leaders of churches and other charities from
endorsing candidates or taking part in political campaigns. But
investigations slowed three years ago, allowing some preachers and
church groups to push the limits when it comes to politics in the
That was the case in June when Michelle Obama spoke to
more than 10,000 African Methodist Episcopal Church members during their
national convention in Nashville.
Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie,
then based in Nashville, gave her stamp of approval to both Obamas while
introducing the first lady.
"We need this team to lead us for the
next four years," said McKenzie, who also was co-chairwoman of the
credentials committee at this year's Democratic National Convention.
a phone interview Thursday, McKenzie said she was expressing her
opinion as a private citizen, not as a church official, in supporting
Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, says endorsing candidates is a bad idea for churches and ministers.
churches get involved in campaigns, they risk misusing charitable
donations for political gains, she said. "It threatens an end run around
our campaign finance rules."
Erik Stanley of Alliance Defending Freedom,
a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Christian legal group, disagrees. He says
preachers should be able to talk about politics without government
Since 2008, Stanley's group has organized an annual
event called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Participants hope to provoke a court
fight with the IRS over rules known as the Johnson Amendment.
rules were put in place in 1954 at the urging of Lyndon B. Johnson,
then a Texas senator. Johnson was angered at two anti-Communist
nonprofits that had backed one of his political rivals.
Before that time, churches and preachers were free to take part in campaigns.
feel like it's unquestionable the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional
when it applies to a pastor in the pulpit," Stanley said.
No action taken
The IRS has taken no legal action in response to the Pulpit Freedom Sunday protests. Part of that is due to a technicality.
2008, a judge ruled that an IRS audit of a Minnesota megachurch was
invalid because the wrong government official had signed off on it. IRS
rules require a regional commissioner to approve church audits, but the
IRS had eliminated that position.
However, IRS spokesman Dean Patterson said the agency still enforces its rules on churches.
and other religious groups are allowed to discuss political issues and
to encourage people to vote their values. But they have to be careful
that a discussion of values doesn't turn into an endorsement of a
Hollman said a recent campaign run by the Rev. Billy Graham's organization might have crossed that line.
Charlotte, N.C.-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association recently
ran ads urging followers to "vote biblical values." Among those values,
according to the ads, are supporting Israel and opposing same-sex
marriage and abortion -- all positions endorsed by the Romney campaign.
article that called Mormonism a cult was removed from the Graham
association website after Romney, who is Mormon, met with Graham in
That leaves the impression that Graham's group is endorsing Romney, Hollman said.
"I would not be surprised to see an IRS investigation," she said.
The Graham group said that the ads were planned and paid for long before the meeting with Romney and were not an endorsement.
Barun, chief of staff for the association, said Graham has hosted
several politicians in the past, including President Barack Obama in
"The 'biblical values' ads intentionally do not mention any
candidate, political party, or contest, urging instead for readers to
cast votes for candidates -- at all levels -- based on their support for
biblical values," he said in a prepared statement.
Pastors oppose ban
Stetzer, president of Nashville-based LifeWay Research, doesn't believe
endorsements from pastors will ever become commonplace, at least in the
In a recent LifeWay survey, nearly 90 percent of
Protestant pastors said ministers should not endorse candidates during
worship services. Fewer than half said they'd endorsed a candidate
Last year, a LifeWay survey found that most ministers also wanted to see the government ban on church endorsements lifted.
and church people don't want politics in the pulpit," Stetzer said.
"However, they don't want the IRS determining what a pastor says
Stetzer, who also is pastor of Grace Church, said he doesn't endorse candidates at all.
Even if he's giving his personal opinion on a candidate, he said, people still assume he's speaking as a pastor.
"I don't think people can tell the difference," he said.