War of words rages over church sign

By Abe Levy
Updated 1:06 p.m., Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Should the IRS crack down on a rural Hill Country church whose marquee urges, “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim” in the presidential election?
Opinions have abounded since Pastor Ray Miller put up the message last week outside his nondenominational church in Leakey, the seat of Real County about 100 miles northwest of San Antonio.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a formal complaint on Tuesday to the IRS in Washington in light of media reports about the sign, saying it received more than two dozen emails criticizing the church for endorsing a candidate when federal and state nonprofit laws prohibit that.
Miller, who heads Church in the Valley, did not return repeated phone calls. But church member Benjamin Guajardo defended the sign as free speech and said the congregation has received positive feedback and some donations in response.
“I think (Miller) puts signs up there and knows they’re going to be controversial,” Guajardo said. “I don’t think he’s too particularly concerned about that. The church won’t cower down. That’s not the way it should be. We do have that freedom here.”
This is like a bumper sticker “telling folks to vote for Mitt Romney,” said Rob Boston with Americans United, a national watchdog organization that has sued government agencies for allegedly endorsing religion. “You’d have to be pretty dense not to know he is Mormon.”
“All tax-exempt organizations — secular or religious — are expected to refrain from interfering in partisan politics,” he said. “The law is very clear. They can speak out on issues but cannot tell people to vote for or against a candidate in an election.”
It also echoes fringe allegations that President Barack Obama is a closet Muslim despite his stated Christian faith and well-established affiliation with Christian clergy and congregations.
Asked whether the IRS is looking into it, an agency spokeswoman in Houston cited confidentiality laws and declined all comment.
Boston repeated the common criticism that the IRS is weak on enforcement, allowing religious groups to claim religious expression to escape penalties for illegal partisanship.
Government intrusion into religion is growing but the town’s 12 churches are used to the local culture of speaking one’s mind, said Pastor Rick Schmidt of New Beginnings in Christ Community Church.
“If somebody doesn’t like what you say, they usually just say something back to you,” he said.
“I have a feeling sooner or later they’re going to pull the tax-exempt status from churches anyway,” Schmidt said. “They’re trying to raise money and seeing what the churches have. (Miller’s church) has a right to say what they want. I kind of chuckled when I saw it. It didn’t offend me. You can’t say anything anymore without offending someone.”

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