Organized by Obama-supporter the Rev. Jamal Bryant, The Empowerment Movement will aim to register 1 million black voters on Easter Sunday in thousands of African-American churches nationwide. But if their efforts favor a particular candidate or party they could be wading into IRS trouble.
"The number one thing we are doing is going after registering 1 million voters in this fall's election," said Bryant, who pastors a church in Baltimore, Md., in a video for News One. "This is going to be a critical election when you deal with foreclosure, bankruptcy and healthcare. Our president has an agenda but he needs some help."
Rob Boston, who is a senior policy analyst with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says pastors need to be careful how they encourage their members to engage in politics because of IRS regulations on nonprofits, which is the status of most churches. If the church advocates a particular candidate, the IRS could rule that the organization is political and thus not eligible as a charity to enjoy tax-exempt status and tax-deductible donations. Donors to a nonprofit church can deduct contributions as a charitable donation.
"There is nothing wrong with a church or any other organization encouraging people to exercise their right to vote," Boston told The Christian Post. "The IRS has been clear as long as churches encourage people to vote on a non-partisan basis they are on safe legal ground."
But when Boston was informed of Bryant's quote that mentioned President Obama, he expressed some concern that the Baltimore pastor was close to overstepping his legal boundaries.
"I'm not familiar with this particular movement, but if he or any other pastor were to mention President Obama or any specific candidate by name and say people needed to register to vote or cast their vote for them they would be violating IRS rules."
The Christian Post attempted to reach Pastor Bryant but was unable to do so prior to publication.
Johnson said that Americans United for Separation of Church and State has reported pastors to the IRS who have spoken out on behalf of both Republican and Democratic candidates.
One of the best-publicized examples was when Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry when he was seeking the GOP presidential nomination. Jeffress received a letter from the IRS but his church has never been penalized or lost their tax-exempt status.
The strategy of The Empowerment Movement will be simple, according to the group's organizers. Each participating church will be challenged to register 20 new black voters, according to the Rev. Frantz Whitfield who pastors Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Waterloo, Iowa.
In an interview with the WCF Courier, Whitfield drew an analogy between the story of Jesus' resurrection and African-Americans' right to vote. "We want to resurrect our right to vote," Whitfield told WCFCourier.com.
Gary Marx, executive director for Faith & Freedom Coalition has a long history of mobilizing Christians to vote in key election years. Their organization is also committed to making sure Christians seek the importance in voting for candidates whose values are aligned with biblical values.
When asked if Faith & Freedom had any plans to register voters on Easter Sunday, Marx was quick to say "no."
"There is a time and a place for everything and Easter should be focused completely on the resurrection."