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Church’s stance on moral issues sparks Americans United tax exemptn.

WICHITA FALLS, Texas (BP)–A Southern Baptist pastor was within his rights to urge church members to vote against candidates who oppose Scripture, despite threatening comments to the contrary by a liberal church/state organization, according to an attorney specializing in constitutional law.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State targeted pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church, Wichita Falls, Texas, after he challenged his 8,400-member congregation in a June 28 sermon to “vote out the infidels who would deny God and his Word.” Jeffress’ highly charged sermon, reported by the local Times Record News in its June 29 edition, marked the continuation of a searing three-month dispute over two children’s books in the city’s public library promoting the homosexual lifestyle.
“Your comments about how your congregation should vote in the next election raise serious legal questions,” said Barry Lynn, Americans United executive director. “If you proceed with your plan to use your church to defeat city council members with whom you disagree, you are placing the tax-exempt status of your congregation in jeopardy.”
But Jenny Schans, an attorney specializing in constitutional law with the Rutherford Institute, Charlottesville, Va., said she would agree with Jeffress “100 percent.”
“His statements, by no stretch of the imagination, have put his church’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy,” Schans said. “He has every right to criticize public officials and to instruct his congregation to vote against candidates, as long as he does not mention them by name.”
The struggle between First Baptist Church and liberal and pro-homosexual groups has attracted national attention in recent weeks. It has prompted a bevy of churches and pro-family groups to line up behind the church’s call for the books — purchased with tax dollars — to be removed. Jeffress’ stance has drawn editorial criticism from the local newspaper and reports in a range of Texas and national news media.
The issue surfaced in May when members of the church discovered that the city library had purchased two books — “Daddy’s Roommate” and “Heather Has Two Mommies” — with taxpayer dollars and displayed them within the reach of children.
The members checked out the books and took them to Jeffress, who in an act of civil disobedience refused to return them. Jeffress later paid the library $54 for both books. On May 12, the 80 deacons of First Baptist passed a resolution calling for the city council to “instruct the local library board to identify and remove all literature from the city library that would promote and/or sanction homosexual behavior.” “Daddy’s Roomate,” for example, is written from a little boy’s perspective. It carries a drawing of two men in bed with the caption, “Daddy and his roommate sleep together.” Another drawing shows two men embracing, with a caption, “Being gay is just one more kind of love.”
The action by Jeffress and the church prompted the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to threaten to sue the city if the books were not returned to the shelf. A leader with the Washington-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation suggested that such Christians are “irrational” while lambasting another Wichita Falls-area pastor, likening his scriptural views on homosexuality to the treatment Jews received from Nazis during World War II. The Times Record News editorialized, indirectly calling for city authorities to take legal action against Jeffress for his civil disobedience. The city attorney, who is a member of Jeffress’ church, declined to do so. The newspaper also suggested that such an “intolerant” stand by the church could hurt the local economy by keeping new companies and jobs from moving into the region, including a possible new training camp for the Dallas Cowboys professional football team.
Meanwhile, the library repurchased the books, but moved them from the children’s section to the juvenile area.
Jeffress, who has been pastor of First Baptist Church for six years, took the opportunity in his June 28 sermon to voice his church’s displeasure with the library’s decision. “If the librarian, city manager and city council think we are going to bow down in gratitude and thank them for taking these two books and moving them out from our younger children and moving them over to pollute the minds of our older children, they’ve got another thing coming. We are not going to put up with that,” Jeffress said as the congregation broke into applause.
Jeffress lamented America’s moral decay and criticized public officials at various levels of government. He never identified public officials by name, only by institution such as the Supreme Court and city council. It was in this sermon, televised locally and peppered with periodic “Amens,” that Jeffress made his now-famous “vote out the infidels” statement.
“The greatest threat to our nation is not external,” Jeffress said. “It is not the Chinese, the Russians or the Iraqis. Our greatest threat is internal. It is those who would try to separate our nation from its Christian heritage. It would be from those from within this nation who would try to remove the acknowledgment of God and his Word from our government and our schools. We are a nation under siege.”
Drawing from Hosea 4:1-6, Jeffress said, “The nation that reverences God and his Word is going to be blessed by God and the nation that denies God and his Word is going to be judged by God. We see this over and over again in the pages of history.”
Jeffress said Hosea’s prophecy was addressed to Israel, which like America today, was prospering politically and economically yet was spiritually bankrupt. “Israel had wandered away from God and, because of that, God said, ‘Judgment is coming,’” Jeffress said. “Doesn’t it sound like Hosea had tuned into the evening news last night? Isn’t that what our country is like … murder, violence, adultery? That’s the way it was with Israel,” he said, adding that Hosea’s warning to Israel is just as applicable to America today.
Jeffress offered several examples of Supreme Court decisions over America’s first 160 years which affirmed that America was founded on Christian principles. For example, in 1799 the Supreme Court held that “the Christian religion is the established religion of our nation.”
“Who was in a better place to interpret the Constitution of the United States correctly?” Jeffress asked. “The Supreme Court of 1799 or the Supreme Court of 1999? Was it those Supreme Court members who lived just down the street from our founding fathers and could go knock on their doors and ask them what they meant, or is it people who are trying to interpret it 200 years later? I submit to you that the Supreme Court of 1799 was in a better place to understand what our founding fathers meant.”
Throughout his sermon, Jeffress quoted from George Washington, Supreme Court Justice John Jay, patriot Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. Jeffress noted how Jefferson never intended for there to be a wall of separation between state and church, that a 1962 Supreme Court decision, which banned school-sponsored prayer, was based on a personal letter Jefferson sent to Baptists in Connecticut who heard a rumor that Jefferson, while he was president, intended to establish a particular denomination as the national church. The rumor was untrue, as Jefferson noted in his reply letter, in which he used the “separation of church and state” phrase.
In his sermon, Jeffress said the court built a case from that letter and attacked the so-called establishment clause of the First Amendment. “By no establishment of religion, they meant that the government was not to prefer one Christian denomination over another,” Jeffress said. He then cited a recent poll which showed that 67 percent of Americans believe that the phrase “separation of church and state” is in the Constitution. “They are shocked to learn that not only does that phrase not appear in the Constitution, but it doesn’t appear anywhere, including the First Amendment,” Jeffress said, adding that the reading of Scripture was banned from school by the high court in 1963. He quoted from the Supreme Court ruling, which said in part that portions of the New Testament, read without explanation, could be psychologically harmful to children.
The ACLU responded to Jeffress’ sermon later that day after it was contacted by a reporter who attended First Baptist that morning.
“Jefferson had a loathing and a fear of the European type of religion where the religion and the state were linked,” Jay Jacobson, executive director of the Texas ACLU, told the Times Record News. “(Jeffress) needs to go back and read the debates in the ratification convention of the state which make it abundantly clear. As a people, we have always rejected this type of religious intolerance and bigotry.”
But Schans said it is Jacobson who had better study his history.
“Saying that Jefferson loathed — and was fearful of — the European type of religion is totally not true. The state of Virginia had state-sponsored church (Episcopalian) and Jefferson wrote Virginia’s constitution. The ACLU would seem to be the one being religiously intolerant.”
In his sermon, Jeffress said that while the Bible can no longer be read in the classroom, books promoting anti-Christian views can be. He cited a 1985 case in California involving a student who complained about a book she was required to read. But the courts ruled that the book was appropriate for schools. Jeffress said the book, “A Learning Tree,” “stated that Jesus Christ was a ‘poor, white trash god – a long-legged white SOB.’ In other words, the court said, you can use a book that calls Jesus a (SOB), but you cannot use a book that calls him the Son of God. God help us! God help us! God help us!”
Jeffress gave examples of how violent crimes by children is evidence that our nation is headed in the wrong direction morally, focusing on one case in which a group of teenage boys hung and beat a little girl to death. “Asked why they did,” said Jeffress, “they said because it was fun, that it was like killing an animal.”
“God forbid our children not read, meditate or obey the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” he continued. “Don’t those idiots in Washington understand what they are doing? Don’t they see the relationship between their godlessness and the chaos that is destroying our country? They may not see it, but God sees it. And God says, ‘Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children.’”
Jeffress said God has not given First Baptist Church — or any church — the mission of cleaning up society. “There is no more futile ministry in the world than to try and keep sinners from sinning — you just can’t do it,” he told the congregation. “Our job is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to make disciples of Christ, and to teach people the Word of God. But there comes a time when Christians must band together. There is a time — that has already come — when it is time for us to vote out these infidels who would deny God and his Word.”
Jeffress closed his sermon by encouraging the congregation to do four things: pray for all of their national, state and local leaders; vote their spiritual convictions on election day; be prepared to take a stand for Christ no matter the cost; and repent from sin.
Jeffress said the church must hold the city council, which oversees the library, accountable. “But more importantly, God is going to hold them accountable by what they do either through their action or through their inaction. Are they going to reverence God and his Word or are they going to deny God and his Word?”
Lynn said the meaning of Jeffress’ “vote out the infidels” comment was clear. “You want city council members to vote your way about library books you find objectionable, and if they fail to do so, you are instructing your congregation to vote against them. As such, you have issued a political threat, and this is exactly the kind of activity that federal tax law is trying to prevent.”
In a July 10 news release to Baptist Press, Americans United said it is currently engaged in a nationwide campaign “to educate clergy about the laws governing church involvement in politics. As part of that project, churches that violate the rules are being reported to the Internal Revenue Service.” It stated that Americans United has notified the IRS of 14 religious institutions that attempted to influence the outcome of elections, including two churches and one religious radio station in Texas. Jeffress said Lynn told him that Americans United had not turned First Baptist in the IRS, though he interpreted the organization’s action as “a warning,”
“Pastor Jeffress, you have every right to express your views on public issues,” Lynn said in the news release. “However, you do not have the right to impose your religious views on all citizens of your community through force of law. America is a diverse democracy, not a fundamentalist Christian theocracy.”
But Schans said Jeffress was on solid ground and that pastors can criticize all they want from the pulpit as long as they do not endorse candidates running for public office by name. “If things escalate any further, the Rutherford Institute would be willing in any manner necessary to protect the religious rights of the First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas,” Schans said. The Rutherford Institute provides free legal counsel on such issues and has gained a reputation as a strong defender against groups like Americans United and the ACLU.
Jeffress said Lynn told him in a telephone conversation July 10 that his (Jeffress’) comments placed the church in “a gray area.”
“We are not going to be intimidated,” Jeffress told Baptist Press. “We have never used tax-exempt dollars to support any candidate, but we will always speak out on the moral issues of the day.”
Jeffress said the controversy has actually caused attendance at the church to rise by about 400 and that the church recently raised $1.6 million — in one day — for a new youth facility.
“We have always said that our intent is to take this to the city council and that is what we’re going to do,” Jeffress said. “The issue is very simple: Is our community going to be one that honors God and his Word or not?”

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  • Don Hinkle