September 26, 2011 Print

Memphis Church Targeted for Political Speech

by Karla Dial

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) on Friday called on the Internal Revenue Service to punish a Memphis church for including a link to a list of pro-family city council candidates on its website.

On its home page, Bellevue Baptist Church is running an announcement about the Memphis city council election Oct. 6. It opens a page explaining the issue and a link to the Family Action Council of Tennessee, which maintains a list of pro-family candidates.

In 2010, Memphis floated a “gender identity/expression” ordinance, giving special rights to gender-confused individuals in public spaces. Though it failed and the state has since passed a law prohibiting such ordinances, a gay-activist group is trying to revive the issue in Memphis by unseating all the council members who opposed it.

AU is urging the IRS to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status for violating the Johnson Amendment of 1954 — the law championed by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson after pastors spoke out against him from the pulpit during an election.

Jim Barnwell, Bellevue’s director of communications, said the church is just following its obligation to be “the conscience of the community.”

“Bringing attention to a moral issue facing the community is what we’d do regardless of whether it’s an election or any other situation. This time, it happens to be an election,” he said. “Last year, when they put forth that ordinance, we stood against it and so did other churches around town. This is no different.”

Though Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Erik Stanley said he’d be surprised if the federal government goes after the church, ADF will “definitely” defend Bellevue if it does.

In fact, it would be just the fight ADF has been trying to pick since 2008.

Stanley heads the ADF’s Pulpit Freedom Initiative, asking pastors to preach about how candidates line up with biblical values once a year, on Pulpit Freedom Sunday — coming up on Oct. 2. Should the IRS take action, ADF will respond with a constitutional challenge aiming to overturn the Johnson Amendment.

“We’ve always believed that the government ought to stay out of what a church says, period,” Stanley said. “We’ve chosen to focus initially on what it says from the pulpit, but we support (free church speech) in all its forms, on the website or with handouts.”

Last year, 100 pastors nationwide took part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday; 400 plan to do so this Sunday. ADF is hoping for 500.

Pastors who would like to take part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday still have time to do so at www.pulpitfreedom.org.

Learn more about the Johnson Amendment.