Aug. 18, 2010— -- An Oklahoma Baptist pastor is defending his support of a Republican candidate despite a watchdog group's push for the IRS to investigate the man for a possible violation of federal law.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has accused Pastor Paul Blair of using his tax-exempt religious organization, Reclaiming Oklahoma for Christ, to drum up support and funds for state Rep. Sally Kern, a Republican seeking her fourth term.
In a letter sent last month to the Internal Revenue Service, the Washington D.C.-based watchdog group pointed to an e-mail sent ahead of a June campaign kick-off event, "Rally for Sally," in which Blair urged parishioners and supporters to lash back at what he called an attempt by the "homosexual lobby" to take over the elected position.
"If they succeed, it will serve as a warning shot across the bough [sic] of all elected officials who defend Biblical values," the e-mail read, according to Americans United. "Even if this is not your district, this race will effect [sic] you! Once a person is elected to the legislature, their voting impacts ALL Oklahomans."
According to the IRS tax guide, "section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and religious organizations, are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."
An IRS spokesman declined to comment.
In his letter, Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn cautioned the IRS that "If tax-exempt organizations flagrantly violate the law, they should expect appropriate penalties."
But Blair, who recently donated $100 as an individual citizen to Kern's campaign, insisted that he never told anyone how to vote. He called Lynn a "self-anointed tattle-tale."
"He goes after conservative issues all over the country," Blair said. "It's just an attempt by him to intimidate and through the intimation silence pastors."
Blair, pastor of the 400-member Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, said he has been disturbed by gay rights activist Tim Gill's national move to elect candidates who will support LGBT issues. He pointed to Kern's transgender opponent, Brittany Novotny, as what he calls proof that the "homosexual lobby" has come to Oklahoma.
"In my few years, we've gone from Andy Griffith to 'Brokeback Mountain' and it's not getting any better," he told ABCNews.com. "We are just continuing to spiral into a moral abyss.
"We have never officially endorsed or gotten into politics," he said. "We get into cultural issues."
Americans United's Lynn said he considers the issue to be "an open and shut violation. There's no ambiguity.
"And I would think Pastor Blair is smart enough to know that," he said.
Rep. Kern, Pastor Blair Yearn for Politically Active Churches
Lynn denied that the 62-year-old Americans United ever targets any one religious group. Christians may now be seeing slightly more complaints, he said, because of a movement by some to deliberately violate the law in support of Republican candidates.
"We're not tattle-telling," he said. "Many of our complaints come from within the community or even from within the church. Some of them act like this is civil disobedience in the mold of Martin Luther King and that's unfortunately inaccurate on so many levels."
For her part, Kern said the flap that has ensnared her reelection campaign doesn't really bother her.
"I think it's much ado about nothing," she said. "I think it just highlights something that our society needs to take another look at."
Kern said she wishes the country would go back to the days before President Johnson's 1954 amendment banning churches' political involvement, when pastors could speak freely on politics and candidates.
Outside their house of worship, she noted, the pastors and the parishioners are still citizens with rights to free speech.
"Why should churches be any less than any other?" she asked.
Pastor Blair agreed. In an essay he wrote posted on the Reclaiming Oklahoma for Christ website, he blamed the law for allowing everything from Roe v. Wade, metal detectors in schools, prayer taken out of school and a "sexual revolution."
"Pastors have the constitutional right to preach the Bible without censorship," the essay reads. "That right cannot be taken away."
Both Kern and Blair have made headlines for similar reasons before.
Blair was flagged in 2008 for what some considered to be the endorsement from the pulpit of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for president.
Blair countered that he was simply sharing whom he would vote for.
Kern came under fire in 2008 for anti-gay remarks she made at a Republican event in which she suggested the "homosexual agenda is just destroying this nation" and could be a bigger threat than terrorism.
The comments sparked more than 17,000 mostly angry e-mails to her campaign.