DES MOINES (AP) — Politics and religion have collided at a Burlington church after pamphlets encouraging voters to remove an Iowa Supreme Court justice were made available at a Sunday service.
A woman who attended the City Church service on Sept. 30 told a pastor she believed it was illegal for a church to display material that promotes specific political action. That pastor told her it wasn't illegal, and in an Oct. 7 sermon another pastor, Steve Youngblood, castigated her for raising objections about the pamphlets that back the removal of Justice David Wiggins.
"Don't call yourself a Christian and do that," Youngblood said in the sermon. "We need to draw a line in the sand. We need to begin to say that at City Church this is how we're going to be."
Under a 1954 federal law, it is illegal for tax-exempt organizations, including churches, to promote political candidates or ballot issues. Those who violate the law can lose their tax exempt status, which allows tax deductions on money given to a church and allows a church to avoid paying property taxes.
The woman who objected to the pamphlet contacted the Facebook page of Vote Yes To Retain Iowa Supreme Court Justices on Oct. 3, and a complaint was filed with the Internal Revenue Service on Oct. 10, alleging the church is involved in a political campaign.
An IRS spokesman declined to comment Friday.
"The IRS is prohibited by law from commenting on any specific taxpayer or entity," spokesman Christopher Miller wrote in an email response to the Associated Press.
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."
Hear the sermon here:
"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 are available, and he encouraged them to pick one up.
City Church services are held in the ballroom of the Hotel Burlington, a former downtown hotel converted into an apartment building.
Youngblood said Friday that a church member placed the pamphlets on a table in the foyer, outside the ballroom.
Youngblood said the pamphlets, which encouraged people to vote against retaining Wiggins in the Nov. 6 election, were not distributed in church and the church wasn't advising church members on the issue. Social conservative groups have mounted a statewide campaign to remove Wiggins because he joined a unanimous 2009 ruling that found a law banning same-sex marriage violated the Iowa Constitution.
A similar effort sparked by the same ruling succeeded in removing three other justices in the 2010 election.
Although the church didn't initially address the issue, pastors are now.
"Actually, we weren't, but it wouldn't bother me to do it. I would have. In fact, if you heard the sermon, I held it up and said here it is, go get it," Youngblood said. "I'm not going to be bullied. I'm not going to be intimidated. I'm not intentionally breaking the law."
He said the church has been contacted by a legal group that has offered to represent it for free if it's challenged by the IRS.
Youngblood said it's a coincidence that the issue arose about the same time as a national push to overturn the restrictions on churches advocating for candidates or ballot measures.
That effort is sponsored by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based organization that sponsored its fifth annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday event on Oct. 7. The group said 1,600 pastors across the country signed up to present "biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates." The group said it hopes to eventually go to court to have the law struck down as unconstitutional because it believes the law violates preachers' free speech rights.
Youngblood said he is not part of that effort and wasn't trying to create controversy.
"I'm just saying in this particular church we're going to make a stand for what's right and against what's wrong and we're not going to be bullied by an individual or by a government," he said.
After contacting the Vote Yes To Retain Iowa Supreme Court Justices 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 on 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 a complaint with the IRS on Oct. 10 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.
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