A Washington, D.C.-based church-state watchdog group has filed a complaint to the IRS against a Colorado-based Christian group, saying they violated tax-exemption rules by endorsing a political party.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent the complaint on Wednesday against Ridgway Christian Center, an organization connected to Praise Him Ministries. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, wrote the letter to the IRS in response to a fall 2012 publication of RCC which apparently endorsed the Republican Party for the upcoming elections.
"In this case, Ridgway Christian Center/Praise Him Ministries has endorsed not just one candidate by an entire slate with its command to vote for the Republican Party," wrote Lynn. "I believe this type of brazen disregard for the law cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. I urge you to investigate this matter and fully apply the law."
Lynn also took issue with an article written by PHM Founder and President Victoria Hearst, who argued that tax-exempt organizations should be allowed to endorse political candidates and parties.
"Furthermore, the column inside this publication by Hearst indicates that she is well aware of what the law requires but has decided not to follow it," wrote Lynn.
In her column, Hearst talked about an event coming Oct. 7 titled "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," which is being organized by Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund).
"For decades, we Christians have been told that we may not publicly discuss politics or support individual politicians or tell people how to vote in churches, ministries, Christian organizations or at Christian events," wrote Hearst.
Hearst argued that the mandated non-partisan status for tax-exempt organizations was only selectively enforced, as churches like Ebenezer Baptist of Atlanta, Ga., have blatantly campaigned for President Barack Obama and received no punishment from the IRS.
"The Ebenezer Baptist Church story was widely reported on conservative radio and television, as well as internet sites, as an example of the gross hypocrisy not only of the Democrats but of the IRS, because nothing ever happened to the church for its political activity," wrote Hearst.
Nonprofits like churches are forbidden from maintaining a tax-exempt status while supporting political parties or candidates due to the Johnson Amendment. Passed by Congress in 1954, the amendment states that tax-exempt entities cannot "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of – or in opposition to – any candidate for public office."
According to Erik Stanley of ADF, groups like Americans United have used the Johnson Amendment to "scare churches."
"Under the First Amendment, the pastor has the right to determine what is said from the pulpit, not the IRS," wrote Stanley on a blog.
"It's ironic that an organization committed to the 'separation of church and state' is arguing for more governmental monitoring and control of churches and pastors."