WIMAUMA — After the praise songs and prayer, Pastor Arlen Beck approached the pulpit last Sunday to deliver a sermon titled Wake Up.
He quoted Bible verses and talked about well-known pastors. Everything was fine, churchgoer Brenda Fuqua said, until he brought up the Nov. 2 elections.
A lot of people had been asking him whom he planned to vote for, said Beck, pastor of Sun City Christian Center. So he wrote a list with the candidates' names, all of them Republicans. The printouts were available at the back of the room, he said.
"If you're conservative you might want to pick one of those up. If you're liberal you might not want to stop by there," Fuqua remembers Beck saying.
She was horrified. Fuqua, 66, didn't want to make a scene by walking out, but said she was shocked when about 50 people stood up and clapped after Beck said that green initiatives and global warming are part of a pagan movement.
"I couldn't believe this was going on in a country where we have separation of church and state," she said. "I will not be back at this church."
Tax law expert Ellen Aprill, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said she believes Beck violated federal law by supporting specific candidates in an official capacity.
Pastors are allowed to express their political views, but not as a leader of a religious organization, she said. And they can't make partisan comments in a church publication or at church functions, Internal Revenue Service guidelines state.
"Someone asked me to sum up the rules, and I came up with: issues good, people bad," Aprill said. "Nobody says pastors should stop talking about issues that are important for their faith. They just shouldn't name names."
Beck doesn't care. He said if the IRS wants to take away his church's tax-exempt status, it can.
"I am a little agitated because of where we are as a society," he said.
He also believes the separation of church and state is being violated — but in the opposite direction.
"The state's sticking their nose in my business, when they believe there should be separation of church and state," he said.
Aprill said she doubts the IRS will take away the church's tax-exempt status. That happens infrequently, she said.
Washington Law School professor Andy Pike said the IRS is not very aggressive when it comes to investigating reports like these.
Still, Fuqua, a Kentucky native who comes down to Florida each winter with her husband, said she plans to report Beck to the IRS.
She's a retired social studies teacher and a registered Democrat, but she said the problem isn't that her pastor is conservative. She said she would be upset even if he endorsed Democratic candidates.
"I just never think that should be preached from the pulpit of a church," she said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.