Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State writes IRS about Pastor Charles Worley

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has written a letter to Lois G. Lerner, director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division, in which he requests that Ms. Lerner consider that in this sermon Pastor Charles Worley violated federal law by intervening in an election.

Dated May 23, 2012, Mr. Lynn’s letter reads:

Lois G. Lerner, Director

Exempt Organizations Division

Internal Revenue Service

1111 Constitution Ave. N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20224

Dear Ms. Lerner,

I am writing today with information about a church in Maiden, N.C., that I believe has violated federal law by intervening in an election.

On May 13, Pastor Charles L. Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church delivered a sermon denouncing President Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage.

During his remarks, Worley suggested quarantining gays and lesbians and allowing them to die. These hateful and repugnant statements attracted much media attention. (See news story enclosed.) But it should not be overlooked that Worley’s comments also included a partisan appeal related to the November election.

Worley referred to “our president getting up and saying that it was all right for two women to marry or two men to marry” and added, “I was disappointed bad.” He then went on to say, “Someone said, ‘Who ya gonna vote for?’ I ain’t gonna vote for a baby killer and a homosexual lover. You said, ‘Did you mean to say that?’ You better believe I did.”

In context, it is clear that Worley is urging congregants to vote against Obama in the presidential election.

As you know, federal tax law prohibits churches and other 501(c)(3) nonprofits from intervening in elections on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. When the top official of a religious organization – the chief pastor of the church – issues an appeal to congregants from the pulpit during a worship service in the strongest possible terms to vote against a candidate, it is clearly intervention in an election.

Church leaders seem to realize that the sermon is problematic. It has been removed from the church’s website, and in fact the church’s entire website is (as of today) no longer online.

The relevant portion of the sermon, however, is widely available on You Tube. I collected it today at the following sites:

You can also find it simply by searching YouTube for “Charles Worley.”

I believe Pastor Worley’s comments represent a clear violation of federal law. I urge you to investigate this matter.

Providence Road Baptist Church’s address is 3283 Providence Mill Road, Maiden, NC 28650. Telephone: (828) 428-2518.


Barry W. Lynn

Executive Director

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

1301 K Street NW, Suite 850E

Washington, DC 20005

Phone: (202) 466-3234

Fax: (202) 466-2587

You can view the letter on AU’s website here.

I think Mr. Lynn’s letter could prove to be the snowball that finally starts the avalanche that ultimately wipes out political proselytizing from the pulpits of American churches.

From Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Service Tax Code (which is the part that applies to churches):

Organizations that are exempt from in­come tax under section 501(a) of the In­ternal Revenue Code as organizations described in section 501(c)(3) may not par­ticipate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public of­fice.

Section 1.501(c)(3)–1(c)(3)(i) of the In­come Tax Regulations states that an organization is not operated exclusively for one or more exempt purposes if it is an “action” organization.

Section 1.501(c)(3)–1(c)(3)(iii) of the regulations defines an “action” organiza­tion as an organization that participates or intervenes, directly or indirectly, in any po­litical campaign on behalf of or in opposi­tion to any candidate for public office. … The reg­ulations further provide that activities that constitute participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of or in op­position to a candidate include, but are not limited to, the publication or distribution of written statements or the making of oral statements on behalf of or in opposition to such a candidate.

For their or­ganizations to remain tax exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.

Section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the polit­ical campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candi­date’s name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate’ s platform or biography. All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the advocacy is political campaign intervention.

Key factors in determining whether a communication results in political cam­paign intervention include the following:

• Whether the statement identifies one or more candidates for a given public office;

• Whether the statement expresses ap­proval or disapproval for one or more candidates’ positions and/or actions;

• Whether the statement is delivered close in time to the election;

• Whether the statement makes refer­ence to voting or an election;

• Whether the issue addressed in the communication has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office;

• Whether the communication is part of an ongoing series of communications by the organization on the same issue that are made independent of the tim­ing of any election; and

• Whether the timing of the communi­cation and identification of the candi­ date are related to a non-electoral event such as a scheduled vote on specific legislation by an officeholder who also happens to be a candidate for public of­fice.

A communication is particularly at risk of political campaign intervention when it makes reference to candidates or voting in a specific upcoming election.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ed Kanitra via Facebook

    I wish Facebook had a “love” button!

  • O.O

  • Barbara Rice

    It’s a good start.

  • Logan Judd via Facebook

    The FBI should also look into this guy inciting genocidal violence against an entire ethnic group.

  • Christelle

    When hate is no longer taught from the pulpit – hate crimes, bullying, and suicide will decrease. This is a great start!

  • I’ve been working on my own letter as well.


  • Melody

    I’m not holding my breath yet, but here’s hoping for a desired outcome.

  • Jeannie

    Churches should not be tax exempt. Well, perhaps churches that really spend most of their time actually doing something in the community may be the exception. But this is a great start.

  • Great!

  • “The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community.” –James A. Garfield, 20th US President and ordained elder of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

  • Amy

    Right on. And not just because of the hate. I wouldn’t want to attend a church that urged me to vote for ANY candidate. That’s between me and the polls, thank you very much.

  • this needs to happen a LOT more often.

  • Kim Janes via Facebook

    This won’t accomplish anything. It’s unfortunate, but the IRS just doesn’t care about enforcing this.

  • Thomasina Stikeleather Lackey via Facebook

    I’d be curious to see the IRS’s reaction. Unfortunately (or fortunately – depending on your tax status) their focus is on high-income individuals and large corporations. But, given the media attention……

  • Hope this does start something BIG!

  • Al

    That really is the best idea. It hits them where it hurts and it holds them to account for meddling in the affairs of secular society. If these guys want to express their ideology, let them do so at the ballot box or before a judge, not from the tax-exempt safety of the pulpit.

  • Al

    Yes, but maybe it’s time they did. Or maybe some law enforcement agency. If this guy tried that in Canada (where I’m from) he’d be charged with a hate crime, tho the rules might be a lot different in N.C.

  • Scott Rose

    Sign this petition asking IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman to Investigate the Catholic Church and Cardinal Dolan for violations of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status violations. And then re-post the petition:

  • Sharon Martinelli via Facebook

    They should go after the Catholic Church big time for advocating that only pro-life candidates should be elected. See Catholic vote. I am glad to see this and hope that every church sees its way to stop the nonsense.

  • Sadly this stuff isn’t new for the state of NC. Several years ago another NC pastor made national headlines for trying to oust members who voted Democrat. The pastor soon was no longer behind the pulpit and life went on.

  • Neil in LA

    It’s great that they are going after him. But I’d really like to see them go after these crazy guys! I say this as a faithful, LGBT, Catholic. I believe in the Church, but I do believe it needs some serious infuision of the Holy Spirit!

    I think that the bishops need to wear sackcloth, and spend some time sitting in ashes. If they do that, then maybe they might be able to recover whatever authority they might have had. But no. It’s all about politics and telling their “flock” that their (the flock’s) “conscience” is not “formed” correctly! Excuse me? Sheesh!

  • Bad move. There’s not enough in that sermon to establish a violation of the applicable laws; this letter will just give Worley a reason to claim he’s being persecuted. And does anybody seriously think that anybody in this guy’s congregation, or who took that sermon seriously, was going to vote for Obama anyway?

  • Tom in elpaso

    As to your final comment, we can only hope.

  • Don Rappe

    Not gunna happen.

  • Soulmentor

    I reluctantly agree with Tracey Livezey above. Worley didn’t actually tell his congregation who to vote for. His intent was obvious but his actual words left wiggle room. Nothing will come of Mr Lynn’s letter, but it does call more attention to “Worleygate”.

  • Soulmentor

    Arrrggghhh. I came out on top so Tracy is “below” . Well, I’m sure you all get it.

  • See my additional content in this post. Looks pretty strong to me. And I assume that Barry Lynn knows what he’s doing; I hope he wouldn’t squander his reputation by striking this blow with a limp reed. Let’s keep an eye on this story, and see if anything substantive develops from it. Hope so.

  • See my additional content in this post. Whatcha think?

  • Gonna have to be a long list if every church that breaks that regulation is reported. But I am pretty sure it’s time for a crackdown.

  • There are conservative Christians that once a year intentionally flaunt this regulation and send audio or video copies to the IRS. They want it to get into the court system because they believe it would be struck down under the First Amendment. If that happens, there would no longer be the same restriction on “politics from the pulpit” – not that it isn’t skirted in other ways.

  • Connie Gillis via Facebook

    Tracy, it doesn’t matter. The FACT is he was advocating for his congregation to vote against the President. Clearly a violation.

  • Jeanette Bill-Cole via Facebook

    Learned something new…

  • Karen

    I think that this guy is small potatoes. Does anybody remember the letter that Jame Dobbson wrote during the 2008 election? If that was not as black and white as it gets on the subject of a tax exempt religious organization crossing the line to political agenda, then nothing does. There is a radio show that I listen to (When WV NPR is playing classical music) called Point of View. Again, it is basically Fox News with a psudo-Christian spin. At the end of the show it asks for your tax exempt donations to say on the air.

    As much as I would love to see this guy hit where it hurts (the wallet), until we do something about the James Dobbsons in the media, somebody will just take his place.

  • Jeffery Boes via Facebook

    It’s not the *topic* that constitutes a violation … it’s the mention of a candidate. In the Bush era, churches could and did oppose the war. They could not take that to a logical conclusion and oppose Bush’s re-election.

    To make this more clear: “Tell your leaders to oppose policy X because it’s counter to our beliefs” — OK. “Oppose any candidate who favors policy X” — Close to the line. “Jones is unsuitable for election because he’s not a Christian” — Very close to (probably over) the line. “Vote for Smith because he opposes policy X” — Not OK. (I am not a lawyer, this is just my reading of this.)

  • Lymis

    John’s right. It’s not just saying who to vote for. You can tell people who to vote against and have that be illegal as well, and you don’t have to name names, just be clear enough.

    Now that a huge percentage of American citizens effectively carry a television crew in their pocket every time they walk out the door, there is going to be a lot more available video of these sorts of violations.

  • Lymis

    Anyone who takes Romney seriously isn’t going to vote for Obama anyway, either, but that doesn’t mean his campaign should be tax exempt.

    Even if you are only preaching to the choir, if the message is overtly political and partisan, the government won’t stop you from saying it, but it doesn’t have to provide tax exemptions for it, either.

  • Sybil Buzzkill TenEyck via Facebook

    Tourniquet on the wallet

  • Mary Wisner Miller via Facebook

    And even with a topic — such as the Amendment One vote in NC, the IRS code says that they can’t go “too far”. One could argue that Worley went too far.

  • Lymis

    I’d say “Jones is unsuitable for election because he’s not a Christian” is over the line, but is unlikely to be actually prosecuted, especially if it is an isolated or limited case, because of the fuzziness of things and the deference to religion and churches.

    So it would likely be illegal but something they’d easily get away with.

  • it’s time they get audited for non related business income too! they wide community no longer benefits from these churches existence. the only reason they have tax exempt status is because they offer a service or benefit to the broad community not just members of their spiritual elite “club”

  • Churches *should* be able to advocate on political issues, and even for candidates, but they should not get tax exempt status. That’s my opinion at least.

  • Diana Avery via Facebook

    The more I look at this issue, the more I think that it would be best for the church to not have tax exempt status. I think that when we suck at the teat of government, that we end up serving government rather than God. And this is a bad thing.

  • Amy Mitchell via Facebook

    I don’t know whether I think churches should have tax exempt status. I took a graduate class on managing non-profit orgs. There are many categories of non-profit, not just 501c3. The law is also very tricky to interpret at times, and even individual orgs have trouble with it. I’ve been involved with all kinds of 501c3 orgs (non-religious) and even *they* have difficulty with where the line is on a variety of issues. Maybe religious orgs need their own classification, the same way political orgs have their own (rather than 591c3). Maybe the law should be more clear. Maybe both of those things.

  • Matt

    At first I couldn’t see where the violation was, but now I see it looking at the actual law. Worley’s opinion obviously means a lot to his congregation, and if he says he won’t vote for Obama, they probably won’t either.

    Shut this guy down, I say. Now he’s not just fulfilling his spiritual duties, he’s violating his duties as a citizen.

  • There’s nothing new about this. In 2004, lots of right-wing churches actively encouraged President Bush II’s re-election. Nothing was done about that then. As someone noted, some more liberal churches opposed the same because of the war. Our own rector has taken the Tea Party to task (mainly in the context of criticizing its culture, but a clear message on a particular issue, health-care reform, could be inferred) a couple of times.

    I don’t think churches should advocate for the election of specific candidates–God is not a Republican or a Democrat, and I believe that it’s up to us as Christians, children of God, and rational beings, to sort out which candidate would be the better one on our own. [A fascinating tangent to this whole discussion is how Christianity relates to a democracy, a form of government unknown in the first century A.D.–theological apologies on the subject are all over the map.]

    But it’s impossible to separate issues of fidelity to God from political issues with sufficient precision that drawing the line any farther than “encouragement to vote for a specific candidate” is a good idea. Let’s face it, our visceral sympathy for cracking down on Pastor Worley is based on his obnoxiousness and our differences with him as to what religious virtue is. We have a guarantee of freedom of religion. As obnoxious as I may find someone else’s religion, I have to respect it. While I find the lack of independent thinking on the part of his followers disturbing, do we really want the IRS, which could soon be controlled by Republican appointees, deciding what issues are “religious”? Would we be so eager to yank the tax-exempt status of a preacher who praised President Obama for his finally taking a stand on gay marriage as a logical conclusion from “love thy neighbor”?

    The suggestion that churches not be tax-exempt is more sound from a perspective of “intellectual honesty”–we could avoid the issue that way–but I am just not quite there with supporting this idea wholesale.

  • Matt

    That is, he’s also *not* fulfilling his spiritual duties. This guy has led his flock so far astray they’re in danger of falling over a cliff.

  • Connie, all Worley did was to strongly imply how HE was going to vote. He didn’t tell his congregation to vote against Obama, and he didn’t apply any pressure on them (like threatening to expel people who voted the wrong way). He edged up against the legal line, but he didn’t step over it. John Gragson’s comment lays it out well–this is not a case where the IRS should step in. A lot of liberal church leaders would be in trouble if the same vague standard AUSCS is advocating in this case were equally enforced.

  • Diana Avery via Facebook

    Amy, you make good points. Thank you for your insight into this question.

  • BR

    Which SHOULD be reason enough to see some action from the IRS. These are HUGE issues and maybe this would be a good place to start fixing the problems. Are human lives worthy of the IRS getting involved?

  • BR

    Section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the polit­ical campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate.

  • Kimberly Moser Musci Phillips via Facebook

    What honestly amazes me–more than flaunting IRS restrictions and politicking in God’s name–is that there hasn’t been a wholesale repudiation of this so-called pastor by “mainstream”, high-profile Christian talking heads. Where is the outcry? And does their roaring silence in the face of hate speech mean that the likes of Rick Warren, Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee, etc don’t have any issue w/ the Worleys and Phelps actually spewing this, in the name of God?

  • Melody

    That’s why people are advocating for revoking tax exemption of churches. That way no one is unfairly treated when it comes to politics. I don’t like preachers stumping for or against a politician in the pulpit, but if they aren’t tax exempt, they can say whatever they want, IMO.

  • Vivian Coulter Kavanaugh via Facebook

    The Interfaith Alliance has been reporting such breaches in the IRS for several years….Think what a mess this country would be without “Jefferson’s Wall”.

  • I do appreciate what you’ve said, Amy.

    As I’m guessing you know, the part of the IRS code that I’ve quoted is the part of it that applies to churches. Seems … pretty clear, yeah?

  • Sorry, but I still think that although Worley pushed the line, he didn’t cross it. Nobody would have raised this issue if the substance of this sermon wasn’t so unpopular (and rightfully unpopular). The IRS should not be called in unless a violation is clear, because that sword cuts both ways. Now Worley will just get to say that he’s being persecuted by the “ungodly” AUSCS and federal government, and the religious right will be looking for liberal religious voices to make examples of. Rest assured, if they use the standards the AUSCS is using here, they’ll find those examples. Do we really want the IRS wielding its hammer unless the violation is crystal clear?

  • n.

    They probably should have added the “God’s agin it, i’m agin it, and if you have any sense, you’re agin it” to the evidence of telling people how to vote.

  • Diana A.

    Exactly. This way the church isn’t beholden to the state and the state isn’t beholden to the church.

  • Don Rappe

    The only fair thing which is really possible would be to revoke the tax exemptions of all religious organizations. This exemption is basically unconstitutional, because it involves the state in deciding which organizations are religious and which are not. The state is constitutionally incompetent to make this decision.

  • Jeffery/Lymis – I think between the two of you, you’ve nailed it. Whether or not the IRS gives a crap – that remains to be seen.

  • Emery

    As much as I hate to say this as a queer person, I’m not certain how a church voicing a negative opinion about LGBTQIAP persons and/or polyamorous persons is any different than a church voicing a positive opinion, in regards to tax exempt status. Ultimately, if anti-gay teaching is apart of their ongoing ministry then they are in the clear. Even a statement in regards to Obama’s opinion of this is still acceptable, as long as it’s in reference to an ongoing ministry, and something tells me that anti-gay teachings are not something that is new to this church’s ministry. This could only be considered hate speech, but unfortunately that is not a crime.

  • Allie

    It’s specifically telling the congregation who to vote for that’s a problem.

    Not that I think this will make a difference. If you listen to “Focus on the Family,” which I do once a while since I believe it helps to know the enemy, every episode they straight up tell listeners what votes are coming up and how to vote, and I believe they are still tax-exempt, aren’t they?

  • This would be so right. And NO ONE in their right mind is going to come rushing to their defense. Normally, the IRS does not go after a church because of the bad press… but they would probably be cheered for going after Worley.

    Ironically, the ACLU might be tempted, out of principle, to represent Worley… which would be funny to watch.

  • Diana A.

    It would, wouldn’t it?

  • I would have raised it. I regularly attend a Methodist Church, even teach a Sunday School class, but I DO NOT want my church, or any church, interferring in elections. But some of you didn’t read carefully, and Lynn’s letter could have added a little to the confusion.

    Churches are absolutely entitled, as 501(c)(3) organizations, to advocate on issues. Pastor Worley can say whatever he wants about Amendment 1, about gay people, about adulterers, etc. But you can’t do, as a 501(c)(3) is advocate for specific candidates. Once you start telling people WHO to vote for, you’re supposed to lose you tax exempt status.

    And before the Christianists start crying about freedom speech and religion, no one is saying the Pastor can’t personally, outside the church, advocate for candidates. He can. He can even do it right from his pulpit, it’s just that once he does, his church loses its tax exempt status, but they can continue to say whatever they want. Basically, what happens is they are no longer recognized as a religious organization, but a political organization…not tax exempt…but let me be clear, Worley can still tell people to not vote for Obama.

    As to Focus on the Family, they have a team of lawyers protecting their status, and so are very careful. They advocate on “issues.” So they pick a list of issues on which one candidate and their perferred candidate differ, and advocate for the issues their preferred candidate embraces, and against issues their opposing candidate supports. It’s walking a fine line. They are clearly suggesting who you vote for, but are doing based on issues, which does not threaten their tax status.

    Someone has noted that the IRS rarely goes after churches for this practice because of the negative publicity it would surely attract. I think Lynn, in this letter, is probably trying to make the point that Worley’s such a nasty guy, no one would care of the IRS went after him. But they would not be going after him for saying nasty things about gay people, only for saying he wouldn’t vote for Obama.

    But there the words he said make a huge difference. A lot depends on how the rules interpret support and advocay. Just saying, “I won’t for him,” may not have the same effect as saying, “You shouldn’t vote for him.” That’ll take a tax attorney to explain.

    Also, don’t just leave it up to this organization to call for an investigation. Anyone can report a suspect violation of the tax exempt status to the IRS. Hey, it’s the government…they have a form for it.,,id=131651,00.html

    If enough of us file complaints, it should move them to at least do an audit, and who knows that that could turn up.

  • The challenge for that though Don, as I see it as a non-attorney or Constitutional Scholar, is that it then involves religion and government. If having to pay taxes, religious organizations are required to support government programs which they may not agree with, and my understanding is that, in its simplest form, this is the basis for the exemption. Also, appearances to contrary, religious organizations are supposed to be not for profits. We want government staying out of religion, and religion out of government. Problem is, more and more religion is straying into government.

  • Donald Rappe via Facebook

    There is always a problem with regulating speech in America and I’m down with that. The solution to bad speech is good speech. I am, however, against secrecy about who is speaking.

  • Mark

    I hope that Lynn is successful in getting the IRS to pull the tax exemption. But in another way, I don’t care that much because this is about a lot more than some backwoods crackpot preacher spouting bile to his flock.

    I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but the response to this story by the higher-ups in mainline churches has been non-existent. A man of the cloth openly and gleefully calls for the same sort of “final solution” for GLBT people that Hitler did for Jews, and the official response to that from the various denominations of Christianity has been silence. Not one branch of the Christian church is willing to go on record and say that Worley’s ideas are both evil and wrong. Not one higher-up is willing to state openly that killing gay people is a bridge too far. Instead we get silence.

    I can only assume that the silence indicates tacit agreement with Worley.