BUENA PARK, Calif. (BP)–The Internal Revenue Service has opened an inquiry into an Aug. 11, 2007, “personal endorsement” of presidential candidate Mike Huckabee issued by Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif., on church letterhead. That endorsement was followed three days later with a similar announcement on a local radio program Drake broadcasts from the church building.
In a letter dated Feb. 5, IRS staff member Marsha A. Ramirez informed the church that the federal agency was opening “a church tax inquiry … because we believe it is necessary to resolve questions concerning your tax-exempt status as a church.” The letter included a lengthy list of questions about the endorsements.
The inquiry is the result of a complaint against Drake filed about six months ago by an advocacy group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, after Drake announced his endorsement. Americans United issued a statement Feb. 13 to praise the IRS for opening an inquiry.
“I commend the IRS for investigating Pastor Drake’s flagrant abuse of church resources,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, in the press release. “This is a clear signal to clergy that the IRS is serious about enforcing federal tax law.
“When Religious Right operatives try to enlist churches in partisan political machines, they are putting those congregations’ tax exemptions at risk. Americans go to church to grow spiritually, not to be lectured on which political candidate to vote for.”
Drake’s attorney, Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defense Fund, counters that Americans United misrepresented Drake’s endorsement of Huckabee.
“What Wiley did was a personal endorsement sent out as a press release on Wiley Drake’s personal e-mail account. He made it clear it was a personal endorsement, and it was not sent to any church members,” Stanley said. “It was said on his personal radio show, The Wiley Drake Show, which is not affiliated with or paid for by the church. There was no church money spent. He did identify himself as the pastor of the church, but that is perfectly permissible.”
Filing the IRS complaint is an attempt by Americans United to silence pastors in the public arena, Stanley added.
“One of the things Americans United has done over the years is put forth a version of the facts that has no basis in reality. It is just an intimidation tactic,” he said. “They are flat-out wrong on the facts, and they are flat-out wrong on the law. They know it, but they continue to try to intimidate pastors into silence.
“Pastors have the same First Amendment rights as anybody else. They don’t need to be silent,” Stanley said. “They have every right to speak out from the pulpit on the moral issues of the day. They have every right to personally endorse candidates. Nobody should intimidate them into silence.”
Drake is a perennial presence at open microphones during general business sessions of annual meetings. He is best known in Southern Baptist circles for his successful motion at the 1997 SBC annual meeting to boycott The Disney Company for its support of homosexual activist causes. Messengers to the 2005 annual meeting approved a resolution ending the boycott.
Drake also was briefly in the media spotlight in 2006, when he created letterhead for himself as Southern Baptist Convention second vice president and used it to endorse a candidate for U.S. Senate. He received a stern warning from D. August Boto, the SBC Executive Committee’s general counsel that such activities should cease.
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.