A group dedicated to promoting ethics in government and public life has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether voter guides distributed by a Christian nonprofit violate federal tax code.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) submitted the request Tuesday, accusing The Pray in Jesus Name Project of passing out overtly partisan guides that rate politicians as faith-friendly or anti-Jesus.
"Federal law prohibits preachers from politicking from the pulpit, but that is exactly what Pray in Jesus Name Project is asking clergy across the country to do," said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan in a statement. "Pray in Jesus Name is attempting to use churches to advance its overt political agenda; any churches that go along with this plan and distribute the guides will risk their own tax status in the process."
The Pray in Jesus Name Project has made available "Shock and Awe" voter guides for Christians that report how Senate and Congressional incumbents voted on certain issues – namely on abortion, free speech, health care and homosexuality issues. The group makes it clear on its website that "non-partisan voter guides that simply report how Congress voted are fully authorized by the IRS for distribution in churches."
Christians are being encouraged to help fax the voter guides to 125,000 pastors in all 50 states ahead of the Nov. 2 elections.
Backing the project, Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel maintains that outside of express endorsement of or opposition to candidates for political offices, pastors and churches may engage in many other permissible activities.
CREW, however, contends that the voter guides and legislative scorecards "appear to contain clear partisan commentary" and "while there are no votes to rank the candidates, it is clear through the 'faith friendly' designation which candidate is supported."
"The guides narrowly focus on a few select issues, including public prayers, abortion, and legislative issues affecting the rights of gay citizens," CREW wrote in its letter to the IRS. "Incumbents' votes on these narrow issues are further characterized with biased labels such as 'Pro-Abortion,' 'Pro-Homosexual,' 'Anti-Jesus,' and 'Anti-Free Speech.'"
CREW has requested that the IRS take action against any church that distributes the guides.
"The IRS should investigate whether Pray in Jesus Name is violating its own tax status and warn churches that by distributing the voter guides created [by]this group, they are jeopardizing their own 501(c)(3) status," said Sloan. "Just as 'a rose by any other name is still a rose,' political campaign intervention called voter guides is still political campaign intervention."
The probe request comes weeks after dozens of pastors around the country defied the 1954 IRS rule – preventing organizations with tax exemption from participating in a political campaign – and endorsed political candidates from the pulpit on Sunday. Pulpit Freedom Sunday was organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal firm, which believes pastors have a right to use the Bible's teachings to speak on the positions of electoral candidates or current government officials.
The event was intended to get the government out of the pulpit moreso than get politics into the pulpit.
"Pastors and churches shouldn't live in fear of being punished or penalized by the government – in this case, the IRS," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. "Churches should be allowed to decide for themselves what they want to talk about."
Meanwhile, The Pray in Jesus Name Project maintains that its voter guides neither endorse nor oppose any candidate for office.
With the aim of "[taking] back Congress" and "[getting] out the church vote" the group states on its website: "If we simply tell the pastors without bias how Harry Reid's Senate voted to confirm the Anti-Jesus Judge David Hamilton, how will Christian people vote? If we simply report the non-partisan voting record of Nancy Pelosi's Congress, who voted to pay for abortions with our tax-dollars in Obamacare 'health' bill, how will Christian people vote?
"Pastors, we must not fear the government. It is time for the government to fear the Church of Jesus Christ."
The Pray in Jesus Name Project was started by Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt, an Air Force Academy graduate and former U.S. Navy chaplain who has stood for the rights of military chaplains to pray publicly in Jesus' name.