Did Pastor Charles Worley Break the Law?
Most people with some sense of universal human dignity have found the screed Pastor Charles Worley issued against the GLBT community from the pulpit recently repugnant. As a Christian who tires of being lumped together with such hateful, violent voices cloaking themselves within the protection of their faith, I can say with confidence that there is nothing about Worley’s rhetoric that is Christian, as I understand it.
But some believe he did more than just smear the image of the Christian faith and denigrate an entire cross-section of the population; some suggest he actually broke the law from the pulpit.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State‘s Barry W. Lynn submitted a letter to the Internal Revenue Service arguing that Worley violated his church’s 501(c)3 nonprofit status by interfering in an election while speaking on behalf of his church. See the full text of Lynn’s letter below:
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:
I believe Pastor Worley’s comments represent a clear violation of federal law. I urge you to investigate this matter.
Barry W. Lynn
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
Some churches long have danced along this fine line, risking their standing with the government as a nonprofit organization in the process. Does it mean if Worley or others violated the constraints of the 501(c)3 designation that they could no longer convene as a religious organization? Not at all. It just means they could not claim to be a nonprofit, enjoying the benefit of not paying taxes on any revenue (including offering) and would have to claim it all as a for-profit business.
There are those who feel that all churches should lose such nonprofit status, as they think that offering faith-based institutions special favoritism by the government is an unfair bias. Though I can understand the basis of their argument, the law is what it is for now, and so the question remains if Worley’s church should be stripped of their nonprofit status.
I experience some personal conflict around this question, namely because my gut reaction is to condemn and punish Worley for his hateful claims, particularly as a self-proclaimed representative of Christianity. But we should be mindful that this is not the issue here. After all, would we want others to go on the offensive, challenging our legitimacy as a church any time we spoke out for or against something with which others found objectionable.
It’s hard to tease out our personal grudges against Worley and get to the heart of the matter. But taking Mr. Lynn’s argument at face value, all other portions of the infamous sermon aside, it does seem that he and Americans United have a valid claim to argue.
Yes, there’s a petty part of me that would love nothing more than to see Worley embarrassed and his organization emasculated for his employment of hate speech. But believe it or not, I think there’s a greater issue at stake here. There is great power and value in the nonprofit designation offered to churches by the government, and n accepting such a concession, we agree to certain clear terms, separating our powers as faith leaders from certain matters of politics and government.
Again, love or hate the terms of the law, but it is the law.
Did Worley violate the law? I think so. Is he a repulsive example of the exploitation of ministry for everything Jesus stood against? Most definitely. As for Worley and his church, his best bet is to pray that any IRS investigator assigned to his case is better at separating his professional obligations from his personal feelings than I am.
Otherwise, he has no chance.