Seeking Change in Law, Pastors to Endorse Candidates

On Sunday, Pastor Jody Hice of Bethlehem, Ga., a man who takes the Bible literally and has never committed a crime, will stand before God and the 1,300 members of his congregation and willfully break the law.

Hice is one of 35 religious leaders from 22 states who this weekend will intentionally violate a ban on church leaders making political speeches from their pulpits, in hopes of forcing the issue into the federal courts.

"On Sunday, I'll be endorsing John McCain. I believe that endorsement will be a religious statement more than a political statement. But, the IRS says that for me to speak Biblical truth is against the law," Hice told ABCNews.com.

Churches and other nonprofit groups such as charities and state-run universities do not have to pay taxes. That exemption, however, comes with a price. Churches, and by extension the pastors who serve them in an official capacity, are not allowed to endorse or oppose political candidates.

The ministers participating in this weekend's "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," which is organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian advocacy group, are actively "asking" to be investigated by the IRS. While the ADF believes such investigations will create the opportunity to challenge the ban in court, the organization recognizes that the churches risk losing their tax-exempt status, which could potentially bankrupt them.

Hice, pastor at the Bethlehem First Baptist Church, said his endorsement is informed by his interpretation of the Bible and is therefore a religious speech protected by the First Amendment. That right, enshrined in the Constitution, should trump a 54-year-old tax law, he said.

"The IRS is violating the Constitution by denying pastors the right to speak Biblical truth from the pulpit," Hice said. "I'm not violating the law; it is the IRS that is violating the Constitution. What is freedom of religious expression, if not a pastor's right to tell our churches what the Bible says?"

Hice says by endorsing Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, he is giving his congregation the same sort of moral advice gleaned from interpreting the Bible he gives in his sermons every week.

"I'll be endorsing McCain solely from the perspective of a fair evaluation of where he and [Democratic nominee Sen. Barack] Obama stand on moral issues addressed in the Bible. Abortion was a moral issue before it was a political issue," he said.

The IRS says it is going to keep an eye on the pastors and take action if necessary.

"We are aware of recent press reports, and will monitor the situation and take action as appropriate," said IRS spokesman Robert Marvin.

That action, however, might not result in revoking the churches' tax-exempt status, which would prevent the ADF from having grounds to fight out the issue in court.

Not since 1992, when the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., lost its tax-exempt status for taking out an ad urging people to vote against Bill Clinton, has a church lost its status.

In 2006, the IRS received 237 complaints and selected 100 groups -- 44 churches and 56 nonchurches -- for examination. More than half of those cases remain under investigation, according to IRS statistics.

"However, the IRS did substantiate improper political activity in 26 cases and issued written advisories. So far, there are no revocation recommendations," according to an agency report on the statistics.

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