Pastors Challenge Law, Endorse Candidates From Pulpit

Few Americans would invite an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, but that's exactly what Minnesota pastor Gus Booth wanted when he stood behind his pulpit and told his congregation God wanted them to vote Republican.

In an election where candidates openly discuss their faith and are regularly seen in churches, and a time when pastors' sermons lead the politics sections of newspapers, one might be excused for not knowing that it is illegal for a church to endorse or oppose a candidate for president.

But when Booth addressed the members of his Warroad Community Church one Sunday in May and told them, "If you are a Christian, you cannot support a candidate like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton for president," he very much knew he was violating the law. He even wrote a letter to the IRS explaining what he had said and challenging the tax collection agency to do something about it.

Churches and other non-profit groups like charities and 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.

Booth, 34, is one of several religious leaders who this year hope to challenge federal law by flouting the regulations about endorsing candidates from the pulpit — a move that could potentially cost them their tax-exempt status, creating financial ruin for many congregations.

The separation of church and state may be one of our democracy's most vaunted values, but its enforcement falls to one of our government's most derided institutions — the IRS.

First Amendment Protection?

Booth and other religious leaders who want to challenge the government believe their rights to freedom of speech and religion, enshrined in the First Amendment, permit them to say whatever they want, wherever they want. Those rights, they say, should trump a 54-year-old tax code.

"The government is trying to censor me and other religious leaders," Booth told ABC News. "I may be taking on the IRS, but the IRS has taken on the Constitution unchallenged since 1954. I feel like the only law that should dictate what I am allowed to say is the First Amendment."

"The gist of my speech was you can't support Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama because they support abortion and homosexual marriage, and the scripture vehemently opposes both. I didn't say vote for McCain, but I'm planning to," he said.

In addition to being a pastor, Booth is also a delegate to the Republican National Convention. But it was his Lord and Savior, he says, not his party bosses, who told him to literally make a federal case out of preaching a sermon.

"A month before I made the sermon I talked to the church leadership. I told them, 'If we do this we could lose our tax exempt status. Are you prepared for that?' We spent a week in prayer, and I felt God was telling me to make that speech."

Booth said despite alerting the IRS to his sermon, he has yet to hear from the agency. The IRS would not comment to ABC News on any specific investigation.

Watchdog Group Weighs In

Last week, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a watchdog group sent a letter to the IRS also asking them to investigate Booth.

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