(CNSNews.com) - Columbia World Outreach Church in Columbia, S.C., has about 150 members, one-third of them Hispanic and more than one-third black. The Rev. Mike Gonzalez has preached there for 10 years. And this past Sunday, he potentially plunged himself and his church into a First Amendment lawsuit.
"I ask you this morning, if you are a Christian, can you support Barack Obama as a candidate?" Gonzalez said from the pulpit Sunday. "I urge you not to vote for Barack Obama or any candidate that stands in the same positions and activities that the Lord condemns."
That same morning, at the Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minn., also a non-denominational Christian church with about 150 members, the Rev. Gus Booth told his congregation, "We need to vote for the most righteous of candidates, and it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure that out. The most righteous candidate is John McCain."
These churches, along with at least 29 others that also endorsed a presidential candidate last Sunday morning, may now face scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service. That is the point.
September 28 was "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," an initiative by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a religious liberties public interest law firm that wants to end the law banning political activity by churches.
The ADF says the law is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, which guarantees both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The IRS code says churches and other 501(c)3 non-profits must avoid direct political endorsements. But what about the pastors themselves? The ADF insists they may say what they want from the pulpit.
"I realized the IRS is censoring religious speech behind the pulpit," Booth told CNSNews.com. "There are two competing federal laws. The courts need to determine which one is right. I will be obedient to scripture and the Constitution and disobedient to the IRS."
As for the argument over tax-exempt status, Booth said political action committees are non-profit organizations, as are local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce. "Why are they so afraid of the church?"
The group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which generally opposes expression of religion in the public square, reported six of those churches, including Booth's church, to the IRS for violating their tax-exempt status.
"These pastors flagrantly violated the law and now must deal with the consequences," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a statement. "This is one of the most appalling religious right gambits I've every seen. Church leaders are supposed to tend to Americans' spiritual needs, not behave like partisan political hacks. I urge the IRS to act swiftly in these cases."
Lynn said most of the pastors endorsed Republican presidential candidate John McCain over Democratic candidate Barack Obama, which makes the ADF plan look partisan, he said.
"A pastor who knowingly violates federal tax law is setting a poor example for his or her congregation," Lynn said. "Every pastor who took part in this stunt ought to be ashamed."
The law prohibiting churches from taking sides in an election goes back to 1954 and Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. Facing a re-election battle that year, Johnson feared his opponent would be assisted by some of the larger churches in Texas. So just before the Senate's summer recess, Johnson pushed through an amendment that would rescind a church's or charitable non-profit's tax exempt status if such an organization campaigned for or against a political candidate.
Historically, the church has always played a prominent role in politics, said the Rev. Phil Ellsworth, pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship Church in Shawnee, Kan., regarding the abolition of slavery, child labor laws and civil rights.
"They use that to keep religion out of morals," Ellsworth told CNSNews.com. "What some people call social issues, I call Bible. It's our job to be involved."
Ellsworth endorsed McCain on Sunday, telling his congregants, "Here are the choices. Here are the morals. The decision is easy."
The ADF says the initiative is not about promoting any political party or candidate, or raising funds for anyone. Rather, the initiative is about protecting free speech and establishment clauses of the First Amendment.
The ADF is ready for challenges, said the group's Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley.
"The ADF will oppose any attempt by the IRS to use the Johnson Amendment to remove a church's tax exempt status because a pastor engaged in his constitutional right to engage in religious speech from the pulpit," Stanley said in a statement. "The goal is to have the Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional."
He added that churches were tax exempt long before the IRS ever existed.
"IRS rules don't trump the Constitution -- and the First Amendment trumps the Johnson Amendment," Stanley said.
Gonzalez, of the Columbia, S.C., church, told CNSNews.com that if there has been a violation of the establishment clause, it is from the IRS telling religious organizations what they cannot talk about.
He's not concerned that churches could be corrupted by politics.
"I believe the church has been silent too long, which is why we have so much corruption in the world now," he said.