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Pastor's Sunday endorsement of McCain may get him in IRS trouble

It appears that a Warroad pastor is going to be in the national spotlight this Sunday when he plans to endorse Sen. John McCain for president from his pulpit as part of his challenge to federal rules against churches engaging in political campaigns.

The Rev. Gus Booth, pastor of Warroad Community Church, said he's heard from about 20 media organizations across the nation just today.

CNN and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, as well as the Bill Moyers show on National Public Television, have all told him they plan to cover his church's worship service at 10 a.m. Sunday, Booth told a Herald reporter today, adding, "Can I put you on hold?"

A few moments later Booth was back on the line: "That was a radio show in New York. I put them on hold."

Booth garners attention because of his bold -- or outrageous, depending on one's own views -- stand he took last spring to publicly and loudly flout rules of the Internal Revenue Service in place for a half-century proscribing politicking by churches and clergy, or other nonprofits enjoying tax-exempt status.

He made big news last spring when he spoke out, from the pulpit against Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, citing their positions favoring abortion rights as unbiblical, making it wrong for any Christian to support them in their bid for the presidency.

In the past year or so, Booth got involved politically like he never had before, he said, and ended up a delegate to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul three weeks ago. "I was able to talk to John McCain, just shortly," Booth said. "I just said I was a pastor in a church in northern Minnesota and want you to know we pray for you consistently. And he said, 'Thank you very much.'"

Booth says his big beef is that what is known as "the Johnson Amendment," after LBJ got it passed in the Senate in 1954 restricting tax-exempt nonprofits, such as churches, from engaging in political campaigns.

That violates his freedom of speech, simply because he's behind a pulpit, Booth argues. And he's willing to face whatever the IRS throws at him, he says.

Many, especially the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, are trying to get Booth stopped, and have lobbied the IRS to yank his church's tax exemption, which typically involves not paying local property taxes or church income taxes.

His case has become a cause celebre in a conservative Christian effort on the issue, and he's lawyered up with the Alliance Defense Fund, which is promoting "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," this weekend, urging clergy across the nation to preach from their pulpits "about the moral qualifications of candidates seeking political office."

Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Fund, said in a news release it's about the rights of pastors and churches. "If you have a concern about pastors speaking about electoral can-didates from the pulpit, ask yourself this: Should the church decide that question, or should the IRS?"

It's a misconception that tax-exempt status is a gift or subsidy given by the IRS to churches, Stanley said.

"Churches were completely free to preach about candidates from the day that the Constitution was ratified in 1788 until 1954. That's when the unconstitutional rule known as the 'Johnson Amendment' was enacted. Churches are exempt from taxations under the principle that there is no surer way to destroy religion than to begin taxing it. As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, the power to tax involves the power to destroy. The real effect of the Johnson Amendment is that pastors are muzzled for fear of investigation by the IRS."

But Americans United for the Separation of Church and State say that allowing churches and clergy to explicitly campaign in elections will hinder their authority to speak more generally to moral and spiritual issues, entangling religion and the state.

A group of about 180 clergy, called the Interfaith Alliance, has signed a pledge to refrain from politicking. Some have filed suit, seeking to get the IRS to come down on the Alliance Defense Fund.

Although several cases in recent years resulted in the IRS investigating churches - both liberal and conservative -- for possible violations of the laws against political involvement by nonprofits, only one case has resulted in a church losing its tax-exempt status, according to news reports.

Booth says to him it's between a 230-year-old clear constitutional right of free speech and freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment, and a relatively recent law that contradicts free speech.

Booth said that while he is a conservative Republican and that's what he will preach as the only biblically sound way to vote from his pulpit, he supports the right of liberal clergy to promote their own views, citing two clergy famous as longtime, if controversial, supporters of Obama in Chicago.

"I think Jeremiah Wright and Father (Michael)Pfleger and all those preachers who don't agree with me theologically or politically, let them preach and say whatever they want to say. I'm truly a freedom of speech guy."