Did Burlington churches cross line with "No Wiggins" advocacy?

“No Wiggins” campaign materials on display at two churches in Burlington have stirred up a local debate over whether such advocacy is an abuse of tax-exempt status or an exercise of free speech.

Many conservative clergymen actively supported the 2010 campaign against retaining Iowa Supreme Court Justices Marsha Ternus, David Baker, and Michael Streit. Cary Gordon of the Cornerstone church in Sioux City was the best-known pastor in the anti-retention movement and continues to be a voice for preaching politics from the pulpit.

The “No Wiggins” campaign is using the same church networks that helped oust the Supreme Court justices two years ago.

On September 30, a congregant informed a pastor at City Church in Burlington that it was illegal to display “No Wiggins” pamphlets in church. A different pastor at the same church blasted her in an October 7 sermon:

Pastor Steve Youngblood said the brochures were not being handed out – they were just available on a table.

“What’s crazier than that is that a member of our church gets offended by it,” Youngblood said.

The pastor said the woman doesn’t “have a clue” what his church is all about.

“If that’s what we’re going to produce…if that’s what we’re going to stand for, then let’s quit, because my God, we don’t need to aid the Devil,” he said. “We need to resist the Devil.”

David Pitt of the Associated Press reported,

In his Oct. 7 sermon, the audio of which was posted online, Youngblood speaks of the woman who complained, saying he’d “like to slap her” and that her husband should rise up and “correct her.”

“What makes me madder is that this person’s husband won’t correct them,” he said. “I don’t like rebellious women. I don’t like rebellious men, either. They’re even worse.”

Youngblood then told the 150 people attending the service that the pamphlets were available, and he encouraged them to pick one up.

Pitt also reports,

After contacting the Vote Yes To Retain Iowa Supreme Court Justices [Facebook] group, the woman who objected to the pamphlets was referred to the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, a nonprofit group that defends religious freedom and supports the right to same-sex marriage. Though she initially said she would be willing to be interviewed, she changed her mind when contacted by the AP Friday. She said the stress from the situation has caused her health issues and she didn’t want to talk further.

“The woman who blew the whistle on all this feels unable to talk to the press because that sermon was so intimidating and humiliating,” said the Rev. Jane Willan, minister at Zion United Church of Christ in Burlington, who has talked with the woman and her husband.

Willan filed the complaint with the IRS, alleging the church is involved in a political campaign.

Interfaith Alliance Executive Director Connie Ryan Terrell said she has grave concerns about the church’s actions, including Youngblood’s sermon.

“He read from that pamphlet during the sermon and encouraged people to pick it up after church and in my opinion that is a direct violation of the law, which prohibits houses of worship and nonprofits from endorsing candidates,” she said.

I would be shocked if the IRS revoked City Church’s tax-exempt status. None of the churches that promoted the 2010 anti-retention campaign faced any serious consequences.

Youngblood told MacKenzie Eller of the Burlington Hawk Eye that he has been misquoted and misunderstood.

Audio from Youngblood’s sermon record the pastor saying the pamphlets were “just on a table or you to take them if you want.”

“We in no way violated the 501(c)(3) (the section of IRS code that regulates church’s electioneering activity) and folks who think we did just misunderstand the law,” Youngblood said in a later interview. “We love Burlington and we’re called to serve and minister to the people in Burlington, Iowa. I don’t want to be misrepresented with what we actually believe and stand for.”

Youngblood said the hate and the violence that has been threatened makes him concerned for his church.

“This thing has been so turned around, maybe it’s the political season,” he said.

Youngblood said he has been advised to report the threats to authorities, but has not because he’s afraid it will lead to more controversy.

Obviously threats of violence are not acceptable, whether or not you think the church overstepped IRS rules on advocacy by 501(c)3 organizations. A man who wanted to “slap” a congregant is not in a strong position to throw stones, however.

Meanwhile, Reverend Brad Cranston of the Heritage Baptist Church is showing solidarity with the City Church. Cranston is displaying two “No Wiggins” signs in the front window of his church in downtown Burlington.

“Here’s the question that has to be asked: Why do I, as a pastor, lose my freedom of speech when I step behind the pulpit? I’m an American. Why can’t I say whatever I want to say behind my pulpit?” Cranston said. “It’s a freedom of speech issue, and you know the truth of the matter is, I don’t have a problem with the union hall or anybody else putting up whatever signs they want to put up. This is America.” […]

“What the church did down the street, passing out fliers, we absolutely do that. I’ve been passing out the same fliers,” Cranston said, adding he agreed to distribute them downtown.

In fact, he said he placed the “No Wiggins” posters after a story appeared in The Hawk Eye about City Church.

He said while he does not explicitly endorse candidates, he does tell parishioners who he will vote for Nov. 6. He also believes the judicial retention issue is a special one for pastors. Since justices brought the spiritual issue of marriage into the political realm, he said pastors like himself feel the need to speak up.

Burlington resident Steve Rippenkroeger noticed the “No Wiggins” signs at Cranston’s church while walking down the street. He told Christian Crippes of the Hawk Eye that he is considering filing a complaint: “Everybody has got to play by the rules,” Rippenkroeger said. “If they’re going to be tax-exempt, they should follow the law.”

Cranston’s not worried, because he has already informed the IRS that he’s “talked about politics in his sermons.” An activist with the Alliance Defending Freedom organization, Cranston would welcome a chance to fight the IRS in court over rules restricting political activity by tax-exempt organizations. But so far, Crippes reported, “He has not faced any repercussions.”

Iowans for Freedom, the anti-retention coalition led by Bob Vander Plaats, offers this advice to pastors and clergy (emphasis in original):

Pastors can legally share the following talking points regarding judicial retention to his/her congregations:

General information:

Supreme Court judges in Iowa are not elected, but appointed by the Governor.  For each judge appointed, a list of three nominees are sent to the Governor by the Judicial Nominating Commission.

The people of Iowa get a chance to keep (retain) Supreme Court judges every eight years with a simple yes/no vote.  Not all seven judges are up for retention at the same time.

Judges are also up for retention after serving one year on the court.

Specific information to November 6th election:

Turn over the ballot.  There will be four Supreme Court judges listed on the back of the ballot.

Three of them (Mansfield, Waterman, & Zager), are up for their first retention after being appointed.  They were appointed to replace the three judges which Iowa citizens ousted in 2010.

The fourth judge up for retention, David Wiggins, is the fourth of seven judges up voted to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and allow same-sex marriage in the state of Iowa. […]

What you can and cannot say from the pulpit

According to the Liberty Counsel and in regard to judicial elections/retentions…

Churches can…

•  Support or oppose judicial appointments.

Pastors can…

•  Support or oppose judicial candidates

•  Support or oppose judicial appointments

(click here to download and read the full article)

Excerpts from a great article on what churches can and cannot do:

Churches are prohibited from attempting to influence the outcome of an election.  See 26 U.S.C §501(a)(c)(3); 21 Okl.St.Ann. §187.2 (prohibiting corporate campaign contributions).  Other prohibited activities in this category include endorsing a candidate, giving money to a candidate or supporting or opposing a candidate or a political party.

There are only two hard and fast rules:

1) Churches can’t give money to political candidates.

2) Churches can’t endorse candidates.  NOTE:  This limitation on political campaigns and candidates only applies to churches but not to individuals.  Pastors as private citizens can get involved in political campaigns (or even run for office) as long as they do not use the church’s organizational financial resources, facilities or personnel.

What churches can do without limitation includes preaching, teaching and or studying any issue related to policy, politics and morality.  You can also do unlimited voter registration drives, hand out voter guides contrasting issues; start a social issues committee; educate on viewpoints of candidates; have candidates appear at church services; and introduce candidates at church (as long as you give all candidates the same deference).  What churches can NOT do include endorsing or oppose candidates or political party, make contributions to political candidates or PAC’s; make in-kind expenditures to candidates; use of the church’s name to endorse a candidate; supporting or oppose an elected judicial candidate.

What can pastors do as private citizens?  ANYTHING!  Remember you are still a private citizen of the United States and can fully engage the political process.

What pastors do as private citizens is their own business, but the right to free speech isn’t linked to any right not to pay taxes. All 501(c)3 organizations (not only churches) are subject to rules limiting political activism. Leaders of non-profits advocating for social justice or environmental protection may be as passionate about issues facing the Iowa House and Senate as conservative clergy feel about marriage equality. That doesn’t make it right for those non-profits to endorse candidates or judges up for retention.

The Des Moines Register’s editorial board took a different position this week.

It’s ironic the Burlington church ignores the law when its dislike of Wiggins grows out of what it sees as the Supreme Court’s disregard of the church’s reading of Iowa judicial procedures. Churches should follow the law, and the IRS should enforce it until Congress decides to change it.

The law doesn’t make sense.

The law grows out of a 1954 amendment by U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson that prohibited 501(c)(3) corporations from engaging in certain political activities. It’s unclear what Johnson was thinking or whether he intended to target churches. At the time, he was fighting two nonprofit groups calling him a communist.

Johnson’s amendment has stifled the free speech rights of some tax-exempt organizations. Other entities, from political action committees to social welfare groups, can engage in political activities. Many don’t because they fear alienating their supporters.

But the bottom line is this: Everyone in the United States, including pastor Youngblood, should be free to express their opinions. First Amendment rights should not be tied to an organization’s tax status, to employment or anything else.

Members of Congress should tackle this issue. They should do it as part of the larger reform that is needed of tax-exempt status.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S. – Speaking of the retention vote, the three Iowa Supreme Court justices ousted in 2010 co-authored a Des Moines Register guest editorial defending the legality of Varnum v Brien. Excerpt from the column by Marsha Ternus, David Baker, and Michael Streit:

Constitutional provisions are given meaning when the courts resolve disputes between citizens and their government, including claims by citizens that the government has violated their constitutional rights. Regardless of whether a particular result will be popular, courts must protect the supremacy of the constitution by declaring an unconstitutional statute void. That is what the Iowa Constitution requires and that is what justices promise to do in their oath of office. […]

The court unanimously concluded the statutory restriction violated the Iowa Constitution’s equality clause. Because the Iowa Constitution expressly states that any law inconsistent with the constitution is void – i.e., not valid or legally binding – the Supreme Court declared the offending statute unenforceable and required the recorder to issue the licenses.

It is important to understand what the court decided. The law at issue in the Varnum case governed a civil contract, not the religious institution of marriage. The court pointed this out, stating that “religious doctrine and views contrary to this [holding] are unaffected,” and a “religious denomination can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.” […]

The Iowa Supreme Court took away no one’s liberties or freedoms when it held the statute unconstitutional. To the contrary, the rights of same-sex couples to the benefits that flow from the civil contract of marriage were upheld. The views of individuals and religious institutions were unaffected by this decision and their religious freedom to define the religious institution of marriage as only between one man and one woman was expressly preserved. Nor did the court exceed its proper role by declaring the law void and unenforceable, as that is what the Constitution requires.

The Des Moines Register developed that argument in an October 16 unsigned editorial:

Leaders of the campaign to unseat Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins have shifted their emphasis to a new argument: The 2009 decision striking down the state’s marriage law was not only wrong but the court also went too far in ordering the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

That, says Family Leader President Bob Vander Plaats, violated constitutional separation of powers because the Iowa Constitution exclusively empowers the General Assembly to write the laws and the executive branch to carry out those laws. The court merely renders its opinion on the law, Vander Plaats claims, and the question of what to do in response to the court’s opinion should be left to the elected members of the Legislature and the governor.

The court doesn’t have the power to order marriage licenses be issued to same-sex couples because that is “executing the law and creating law from the bench,” Vander Plaats’ group says.

Actually, judges do that all the time. It’s called fashioning a remedy for plaintiffs whose rights have been violated.

The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously held in the Varnum decision in 2009 that the state law denying the civil benefits of marriage to couples of the same gender violated the Iowa Constitution, which says that all laws must be applied equally to all citizens. The constitution further states that it is the duty of the court to declare void any state law that violates the constitution. In this case, the court said, since there was no constitutionally acceptable alternative, the only remedy is for the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Judicial review has long been a difficult concept for Vander Plaats to grasp.

  • Tax issue

    “Obviously threats of violence are not acceptable, whether or not you think the church overstepped IRS rules on advocacy by 501(c)3 organizations. A man who wanted to ‘slap’ a congregant is not in a strong position to throw stones, however.”

    Agreed. The pastor’s behavior is simply inappropriate.

    But I don’t understand the tax-exempt-status issue.  Is it okay under the Equal Protection clause and the First Amendment for Congress to place these limitations on churches, but not on other non-profits, like the Iowa Bar Association.  That group has been actively supporting Justice Wiggins.  And I assume it enjoys tax-exempt status, although maybe not under 501(c)(3).  The Register’s editorial board has a point, doesn’t it?

    • non-profits can form a 501(c)4 arm

      to engage in political advocacy, and many do so. I know that there are 501(c)3 organizations advocating for Iowa’s judicial selection system in broad terms, but the “yes on Wiggins” advocacy is not coming from 501(c)3s.

      I’m not an expert on all the legal distinctions between a (c)3 and a (c)4, but one big difference is that donations to a 501(c)4 are not tax-deductible. The fact that donations to a 501(c)3 are tax-deductible is a big selling point for (c)3s in their fundraising campaigns. If these churches want to display “No Wiggins” signs, they should register as a different kind of legal entity and tell their donors that gifts will no longer be tax-deductible.

      I’m not against Congress revisiting the issue of tax-exempt entities in a broad sense, but I would oppose narrowly-targeted legislation aimed at allowing churches to advocate for or against judges and candidates for office.

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