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Group targets Warroad church

GRAND FORKS - Six churches, including Warroad Community Church, are being targeted by a church/state watchdog group and accused of violating federal law for endorsing Republican Sen. John McCain for president from their pulpits last Sunday.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed complaints today with the Internal Revenue Service citing the six churches and alleging they violated IRS code for nonprofit agencies.

The six congregations are part of about 30 affiliated with the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona legal rights group that argues IRS rules against churches speaking out on political candidates is a violation of free speech rights.

The Rev. Gus Booth, pastor of Warroad Community Church, a nondenominational evangelical congregation he has led for seven years, garnered national attention this year with his aggressive challenge to the IRS. On Sunday, he told his flock they should vote for McCain because he is the more righteous candidate, especially because he opposes abortion and gay marriage more than his opponent, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Booth's action was part of "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," organized by the Alliance Defense Fund; about 30 pastors took part, according to news reports.

"These pastors flagrantly violated the law and now must deal with the consequences," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a news release.

"This is one of the most appalling Religious Right gambits I've ever 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."

Beside Booth's church, the other five congregations cited by Lynn's group as explicitly endorsing McCain Sunday are Bethlehem (Ga.) Baptist; Fairview (Okla.) Baptist; Calvary Chapel, Philadelphia; First Southern Baptist, Buena Park, Calif.; and New Life Church, West Bend, Wis.

Because all six churches backed McCain and opposed Obama, it appears to be a partisan effort, said Lynn, whose 61-year-old nonprofit is based in Washington D.C. Lynn's group cited news accounts, including a Herald story about Booth's service, of what the pastors said Sunday.

Booth and a spokesman for the Alliance Defense Fund say they welcome any action by the IRS because they want a court challenge.

They argue that the tax exemptions given to U.S. churches are two centuries old and that that tradition, as well as the First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, predate and trump the 1954 law prohibiting electioneering by tax-exempt nonprofits, including churches.

Booth said today he could not comment on whether the IRS has contacted him, because his attorneys, who are with the Alliance Defense Fund, have told him not to.

Otherwise, he's commenting freely.

"I have been fielding phone calls all day," he said, adding that he was scheduled to appear on the FOX News channel Monday night.