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Religion and Politics

Federal tax law restricts the political activities of tax-exempt religious organizations. But churches are by no means sanctuaries from talk of politics, especially in this election season. Pastor Mike Gonzalez is defying the law: "I urge you when you enter the voting booth to not vote for Barack Obama or candidates like him" Gonzalez is risking the tax-exempt status of Columbia World Outreach. He set out to challenge the government last month from his church's pulpit in Columbia, South Carolina. Thirty-two other ministers across the country did the same. Following the services, they informed the IRS of their disobedience, daring them to do something about it with hopes of overturning the law. They say freedom of religion means freedom to talk politics without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. "Personally, my goal is to be able to just continue to encourage other pastors to be able to preach freely. You know, the IRS has no place to come in and try to control what I preach on a Sunday morning," says Gonzalez. Churches can speak freely about politics as long as they're not registered as tax-exempt. If they are, the rule is that they can't advocate for a particular candidate. Talk of issues is fine. Gonzalez hasn't heard from the IRS yet. The year of the last presidential election, the agency revoked the tax-exempt status of five non-profit organizations for overstepping rules guiding political activity. Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte takes a different approach. "Let's pray that god will instill knowledge and wisdom to our current elected officials and to the ones who will be elected this November," prays Pastor Matt Phipps. Every Wednesday this fall before the evening service, members of the congregation gather and pray for the souls of politicians. Phipps continues, "But also we want to pray that God will be honored and blessed through our elected officials and that's why we come and pray and say God we depend on you because it's God that will make the decision ultimately." Phipps says that doesn't mean political stances of candidates aren't on congregants minds-and abortion, he adds, is a primary one. But it's not necessary to continually spell it out. "Our pastor, I'm not quoting him, one Sunday morning said, 'you know what we believe as a church and believers, now you know what you need to do," explains Phipps. That's an easy and fair way to get around IRS rules, according to Rodney Cooper, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He says churches need to be guided biblically, but that by no means ends the discussion of how congregations should handle politics. Supporting a particular candidate or adopting a stance on a controversial issue can be tough on a congregation. Cooper has seen how fiery political discussions can get between students from different political and denominational backgrounds. "It becomes my morality is better than your morality. Obviously you don't know how to read scripture. When we start going down that road it ceases to be a conversation. It becomes a debate and it ends up being personal," says Cooper. Part of the reason the IRS rules are there is to make sure donor's money is going toward its dedicated purpose. Last week, Democratic Congressional candidate Larry Kissell made a stop at Little Rock AME Zion Church in Charlotte. The keynote speaker was South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn. Kissell's campaign says it made about a $200 donation for the space. The church's pastor, Dwayne Walker, says Kissell's opponent, Robin Hayes, is welcome to do the same. At Myers Park United Methodist church, Pastor James Howell upset some church members recently when his wife put an Obama sign in front of their house. "Privately in my home (I had a sign in my yard, it got stolen) I don't mind telling that in that setting. Because I am a citizen, I'm a free Unites States citizen," says Howell. Myers Park United Methodist church is a politically diverse church and that's one reason Howell is holding a talk on Christianity and politics this evening. "How sad would it be, wouldn't it, if Christians were only on one party. Although I hear talk as if that's the case. People cannot imagine that a real Christian could be part of whatever their party isn't," says Howell. But after the talk, that Obama sign was still on some people's minds. Howell says he got questions about who he'll be voting for in a variety of races. He told them he'll save those answers for the home, not the church.