Oklahoma Outlaw: Edmond Preacher Boldly Broke Federal Tax Law

August 3rd, 2010
By Sandhya Bathija
Church Politicking

The Rev. Paul Blair, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, Okla. has told a right-wing news service that America’s clergy need to become bold again.

In fact, Blair thinks pastors should be more like him. In mid-July, the Religious Right leader used his tax-exempt organization, Reclaiming Oklahoma For Christ, to distribute an e-mail in support of Rep. Sally Kern, a candidate seeking reelection to the state House of Representatives. Americans United asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Blair’s group, since tax law prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing candidates for office.

Blair readily admits he used his tax-exempt group to intervene in the election.

“They actually have a transgender candidate here in the state of Oklahoma running against [Kern] – a man that’s now, I guess, a woman,” Blair told One News Now, the news service of the American Family Association. “He’s running against Sally, and we just alerted folks that Sally was having a campaign kickoff. Anybody that wished to go could go.”

Federal tax doesn’t seem to concern him.

“If a pastor doesn’t get a letter or two from Barry Lynn, then he’s probably not doing his job efficiently,” Blair said. “[AU Executive Director] Barry Lynn is out trying to intimidate pastors, as he always does, in trying to make baseless allegations, frivolous complaints and scare us back into silence.”

Blair doesn’t have to be “silent,” and he can be as “bold” as he wants. But if his group wants the benefit of a tax exemption, it cannot become a partisan political machine and rally support for a candidate. That’s the tradeoff. Blair can’t have it both ways.

That’s all AU’s Lynn is trying to get across. He is just stating the facts. If Blair doesn’t care to follow the law, he will just have to face the consequences.

Fortunately, most Americans disagree with Blair. They have respect for the law and don’t want to see their churches turned into political machines.

That was made clear by a 2008 poll taken by LifeWay, a group connected to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. The poll revealed that 87 percent of Americans do not “believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service.”

Americans have many good reasons for this viewpoint, some of which Lynn pointed out in a column for the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal over the weekend.

“Houses of worship exist to save souls, not save some politician’s campaign,” he wrote. “Americans go to church to connect with God, not to take part in political rallies. Americans respect faith and members of the clergy, but they see no reason for political preachers to corrupt the mission of the church by turning houses of worship into some candidate’s political machine.”

Blair should recognize that federal tax law hardly prevents him from speaking out. Even with this rule in place, pastors can still freely discuss issues, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, war and the economy. And they certainly do.

But there is a legal line drawn between talking about the moral issues of the day and actually playing a direct role in elections.

“Without this IRS rule,” Lynn wrote, “politicians could create phony tax-exempt front groups, run partisan campaigns through them and be virtually unaccountable to the American public. The last thing our political system needs is a loophole like this.”

After all, many campaigns are already full of trash talk and foul play. Do we really need to bring religion into it, too?

I don’t think so. We’ve seen that this has never worked well in places such as Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Iraq, where politicized religion plays a very destructive role in public life. The system we have in the United States has served us well. Whether Blair accepts that or not will determine whether he will continue to reap its benefits.

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