Never one to mince words, St. Petersburg evangelist Bill Keller has a message for the Internal Revenue Service: strip him of his tax exemption or leave him alone.
The agency has been investigating Keller, 51, for a year after he equated voting for former presidential candidate Mitt Romney with casting a vote for Satan.
Keller's struggle with the IRS is emblematic of the frustration preachers around the country feel as they try to help their congregations navigate moral issues during elections. They feel they have the responsibility to provide guidance, but are hamstrung by federal law.
The tax code bans nonprofits, including religious institutions or their leaders, from speaking for or against candidates. They also can't contribute to a candidate's campaign.
The IRS came after Keller, but others have been deliberately picking a fight.
The most flagrant flouting involved 33 pastors from 22 states — none in Florida — who endorsed or opposed candidates in the 2008 presidential election.
Keller says he has never gone that far — he simply educated voters on candidates' spiritual positions.
"If they're successful in shutting me down, then basically what that is saying to other ministries is (they) are no longer allowed to speak out on the spiritual issues of the day that also transcend into the political arena," Keller said. "That's all I've ever done."
The IRS would neither confirm nor deny it is investigating Keller. But the preacher shared letters he has received from the agency requesting information about his ministry and his motives.
They offer a glimpse into what other ministries that mix religion and politics may face if the IRS continues to press nonprofits to mind tax code regulations.
So far, Keller has been asked a wide range of questions, more than 92 of them in a single request, including:
• Does his board of directors approve the statements he makes?
• Did his organization make donations to political candidates, campaigns or political action committees?
No, on both counts, Keller says.
• Who writes his material?
He does, Keller says.
The IRS also has asked for board minutes, the names of employees and their salaries, and bank statements along with canceled checks.
Keller had fired back with his own requests on the status of the investigation.
The IRS' response so far: silence.
Tax law experts say the preacher likely crossed the line.
"It's not how much is too much. Any is supposed to be too much," said Rob E. Atkinson Jr., a law professor at Florida State University. "The question is, 'Is that really what he did?' The answer is, 'Oh, come on.' "
The IRS has been cracking down on nonprofits that break the rules since the 2004 elections.
But some pastors won't be cowed. They decided to test the rules during the 2008 presidential election.
Backed by the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, the majority of the pastors opposed then-Sen. Barack Obama. Half endorsed Sen. John McCain. A few opposed both major party candidates, said Erik Stanley, the fund's senior lawyer.
The pastors mailed the statements they made from their pulpits to the IRS. But so far, none has been contacted by the agency, Stanley said.
"If we don't hear from the IRS, I think that's a very explicit admission from the IRS that these pastors are free to speak from their pulpits regarding candidates," Stanley said. "If the IRS does respond, obviously the issue will go to court. And, for the first time, the federal court will be able to judge the constitutionality of this restriction."
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said his group filed 20 complaints last year on nonprofits that endorsed candidates on the local, state and national level.
Lynn's group reported Keller to the IRS for his comments about Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who drew Keller's ire because of his Mormon religion. Later in the political season, Keller skewered Obama, McCain and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Keller called Obama a "baby killer" and an "enemy of God."
He described McCain as "no friend of God" and a man who was "ashamed" to say he was saved.
Clinton, Keller said, marketed herself as a Christian but led a public life that was in "rebellion" against God's word.
"There's no excuse that he's a so-called equal-opportunity basher," Lynn said of Keller. "You're not supposed to take positions for or against any candidate for public office. So, if you don't like a bunch of people and you say so, that's just as bad with your tax-exempt status as if you attack one person."
Keller's lawyer disagrees. "A lot of his comments were designed to generate interest in his message of salvation in Jesus," said David Gibbs, who takes on Christian causes and perhaps is best known for representing the parents of Terri Schiavo, who was at the center of an end-of-life debate.
"I don't see political involvement,'' Gibbs said. "I see someone who is aggressively speaking in the religious educational realm."
He hopes Keller and the IRS can resolve their issues out of court. But the preacher welcomes the fight.
For the record, Keller says neither Obama nor McCain got his vote. He cast his ballot for a third-party candidate. He declined to say which one.
Sherri Day can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.