Memphis Megachurch Targeted for Voter Link on Website

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or AU, is calling on the Internal Revenue Service to look into allegations that Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., is violating restrictions for posting a link to a pro-family organization on its website.

On its homepage, Bellevue Baptist has an announcement about the upcoming Memphis City Council elections and is encouraging voters to educate themselves on a candidate’s position on an ordinance that was proposed by the Tennessee Equality Project, a pro-homosexual group. The ordinance, which has not yet passed the city council, would give preferential treatment to local government employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We are asking our people to become fully informed before voting for city council members by being aware of candidates who have supported treating ALL employees equally and do not want to put additional burden on any employer by granting certain employees a special civil rights status based on sexual preferences or gender identity/expression. Some members have inquired regarding Bellevue's tax-exempt status,” the Bellevue website states.

“Please know that we are fully aware of the law granting tax-exempt status to churches,” the post on the church website reads. The entire post can be seen here.

Bellevue Baptist had a link to Family Action of Tennessee, a 501(c)(4) organization that under IRS guidelines, is allowed to endorse candidates. The site lists three candidates for Memphis City Council who have "stood strong for Pro-Family Values." However, the site does not specifically "endorse" the candidates.

"A church cannot link or direct people to an organization telling people how to vote," said Rob Boston, communications director with AU. "All nonprofits, including churches, cannot endorse or oppose candidates. The IRS does warn nonprofits about linking to campaign-related websites."

Erik Stanley, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, does not believe Bellevue Baptist has done anything wrong.

“First of all, there is no such thing as ‘filing a complaint’ with the IRS,” said Stanley. All they’re (AU) doing is trying to tattletale on the churches by sending a letter. The IRS usually never acts on any of these types of complaints.”

The AU is urging the IRS to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status for violating the Johnson Amendment, which was passed in 1954 by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson after pastors spoke out against the Texas politician in pulpits during an election.

On its website, AU has also posted a warning to churches and pastors considering taking part in a movement called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

“This is an appalling attempt by the Religious Right to turn houses of worship into houses of partisan politics,” said the group’s executive director, the Rev. Barry Lynn. “Americans attend church for spiritual guidance, not to get a list of candidates to vote for on Election Day.”

“I know the Religious Right would like to forge fundamentalist churches into a partisan political machine,” Lynn added, “but the law doesn’t allow it, and the American people don’t want it.”

Pulpit Freedom Sunday, as it is being called, is a program sponsored by ADF. It encourages pastors nationwide to preach annually about how candidates align themselves with biblical values. This year’s event is scheduled for Oct. 2. Last year, more than 100 pastors took part in the event. ADF is seeking to have 500 pastors participate this year; 450 have already committed to it.

Stanley doesn’t believe AU understands the legal aspects of the issue and that the organization has other motives.

“All this amounts to is a political advocacy group trying to use the IRS as a political tool for the purpose of intimidation.”

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