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Clerics must use care in politicking from the pulpit

Houses of worship can take a side on issues, but IRS rules prohibit them from backing particular candidates.

SHERRI DAY | Times

Houses of worship can take a side on issues, but IRS rules prohibit them from backing particular candidates.

With Election Day fast approaching, religious leaders are busy readying their flocks.

Roman Catholic bishops around the state sent letters to parishioners reminding them to consider their moral values when voting. Pastors and rabbis are using their pulpits to advocate both for and against Amendment 2, the proposed gay marriage ban. And Jewish groups are hosting community forums to educate the electorate, including an upcoming bipartisan event in Tampa called "How Should Jews Vote?"

The involvement of religious groups in politics is not new, given that many faith communities have long seen themselves as champions of issues affecting social justice or morality. Despite an intense campaign season, this year, political scientists say, religious groups don't appear to be as active in the political process as in years past. But every year, their participation renews the question about how far they can go without flouting federal laws for tax-exempt organizations.

"You can state your positions quite clearly on abortion or gay marriage or whatever the issues may be and clearly leave the impression as to where you stand as a minister or religious leader," said Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "When it comes to outright advocacy of voting for John Smith or Jane Doe, it seems to me that's where it's really crossing the line."

The Internal Revenue Service prohibits nonprofit groups, including churches, from endorsing candidates in any format, including placing campaign signs on church property or written support in church bulletins.

In 2004, the IRS began cracking down on violators. That same year, the agency received 166 complaints of nonprofit organizations abusing their status and engaging in political activity. In 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, the IRS received 237 complaints. Only 100 of those were investigated, about the same number as in 2004, the agency said.

St. Petersburg Internet pastor and televangelist Bill Keller knows well what happens when the IRS comes calling. The agency is investigating Keller, who made comments last year about former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Keller said a vote for Romney, who is Mormon, equals a vote for Satan. The preacher has also skewered Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.

"I'm an equal-opportunity basher," Keller said. "I'm not interested in their politics. I'm interested in their spiritual positions. For (the IRS) to try to make a case that I'm trying to influence votes one way or another, it's going to be a pretty difficult case for them to try to make."

The Rev. Tom Scott, a Tampa City Council member and pastor of the 34th Street Church of God, takes care not to break the rules. Last week, his church shuttled the elderly to early voting sites and paid for their lunch afterward. He has also put pictures of both McCain and Obama on his church bulletin along with their stances on issues such as the war in Iraq and the economy. Scott said he is careful not to endorse either senator from the pulpit.

"People already know I'm helping Obama," Scott said. "But I cannot stand up publicly and say, 'I'm endorsing Obama,' from my pulpit. That violates my 501(c)(3), and I'm not going to put that at risk."

Scott, along with other politicians and ministers, asked Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson to open for early voting on Sunday afternoons, a time when many African-American churchgoers are leaving services. While election rules prohibit early voting sites from being open more than eight hours on weekends, the elections supervisor agreed to open offices from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays for voters to pick up and cast absentee ballots.

Besieged by pro-Amendment 2 materials that decry gay marriage, the Rev. Phillip Miller-Evans felt compelled to speak out against the measure. He joined a statewide group of religious leaders in opposition to the amendment.

"It's been a part of our tradition forever," said Miller-Evans, pastor of the American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes in St. Petersburg. "Our faith and the life in the civic world are (inseparable), and we express our faith through our actions in the world."

Catholic bishops have also been lobbying the faithful. They wrote two letters, one that encouraged Catholics to "carry the values of the Gospel and the sacredness of human life into the public square," and another that supports traditional marriage.

Bishop Robert N. Lynch, head of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, spent $50,000 to mail the letters to every Catholic family in the diocese earlier this month.

"This is the first time that a letter of that type has been mailed by our bishop," said diocesan spokesman Frank Murphy. "It was felt that the marriage amendment and the encouragement of all the people to vote was very important."

Like the Catholic bishops, the Rev. David Wheat supports Amendment 2. As pastor of the Manhattan Avenue Baptist Church in Tampa, he plans to preach a sermon about the values of traditional marriage. The church also had placed a pro-Amendment 2 sign on its property. Someone stole it, Wheat said.

Church officials put up another one. This time, on its marquee.

Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Clerics must use care in politicking from the pulpit 10/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 10:15pm]
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