FFRF contests Calif. pastor’s political endorsements

Explicit political endorsements on his church’s website by a California pastor drew the attention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has requested an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. Churches are barred from endorsing candidates as a condition of their tax-exempt status.

FFRF, a nationwide nonprofit with nearly 17,000 members, works to protect the constitutional principle of separation of state and church.

A concerned citizen alerted FFRF to a video by Rev. Perless Daniels Jefferson Jr., senior pastor at Rehoboth World Outreach Center, Church of God in Christ, in Vallejo. It’s titled “My Endorsement of Vallejo City Candidates for Nov. 8 2011.”

“In the video, Pastor Jefferson exhorts his listeners to vote, something we applaud, but he goes too far,” noted FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a complaint letter to Lois Lerner, IRS director of Exempt Organizations Classification. “In all, Pastor Jefferson endorsed one candidate for mayor and three for the Vallejo City Council.”

Some relevant quotes from the video:

• “I recommend that you reelect and we reelect Mayor Osby Davis, who has done a great job.”
• “Also I would like to recommend Erin Hannigan, Councilwoman Erin Hannigan, was very instrumental, very key, in the balancing of that budget.”
• “Jonathan Logan, I believe he’s a, a newcomer. . . . I support Jonathan Logan wholeheartedly.”
• “And then also my final recommendation in terms of city council is Jesus Malgapo.”
• “Lastly, I also encourage you to vote yes on Measure B.”

Elliott further noted that Jefferson allegedly urged congregants to bring their absentee ballots to him so he could help them fill out the ballots.

IRS regulations prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches, from “[participating in or intervening in] . . . any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

While leaders of churches or religious organizations may express their opinions on political matters as individuals, they are precluded from making “partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.”

The IRS also warns churches not to upload partisan material on the Web: “A website is a form of communication. If an organization posts something on its website that favors or opposes a candidate for public office, the organization will be treated the same as if it distributed printed material, oral statements or broadcasts that favored or opposed a candidate.”

Jefferson was speaking as an official of the church and introduced himself as “pastor,” using an official church website to endorse candidates.

“The IRS should take appropriate action to remedy any violations of 501(c)(3) regulations,” Elliott said. “Please inform FFRF of any action taken against Pastor Jefferson and his church so that we may notify our complainant.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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