July 13, 2011; Source: El Paso Times | Now that election season has started, this is a story you will see repeated around the nation. In El Paso, the president and pastor of the 1,500-member Word of Life Church has been taken to the IRS for abusing the church's tax-exempt status by engaging in partisan political election activities. According to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Pastor Tom Brown's advocacy for the recall of El Paso Mayor John Cook and others constitutes an inappropriate mixture of politics and religion. The pastor doesn't think so.

The issue at hand is the mayor's support for health benefits for gay and unmarried partners of city employees. This was the policy of the city until last November when voters overturned it. To reward the mayor and his allies for supporting a policy that the voters rejected, Pastor Brown is leading the recall effort and has posted information in support of the recall on his "Tom Brown Ministries" website. The pastor says that the website is private, not related to the church, and therefore he's free to say and do whatever he wants on it. Americans United contends that the website is the official website of the ministry, regardless of its being registered in the pastor's name. 

Pastor Brown has had previous brushes with the IRS regulations. His wife Sonia ran for City Council this past May, motivated by her anger about the domestic partners issue. Her candidacy was announced from the World of Life Church pulpit and some organizing of volunteers occurred in the vestibule. However, it is unknown if there was a formal complaint made to the IRS and any IRS action taken, because the IRS doesn't announce that kind of information.

Americans United files maybe eight to ten such complaints a year, but even they don't know exactly what the IRS does with them in most cases. In one instance, a church lost its tax exemption, but we suspect that the IRS and the federal government in general are little interested in publicizing cases about the IRS telling ministers what they can and cannot say from the pulpit or on church websites. There is probably little appetite to take on Pastor Brown's argument that the Americans United complaint is "just harassment and persecution of anti-religious people against people of faith."

If NPQ Newswire readers are aware of other instances of churches sliding into partisan political campaigning — remember, it's not simply a matter of conservative churches, by the way — or of actual complaints that have been filed, do let us know.—Rick Cohen