A sermon delivered Sunday by Rev. Ed Young of Houston's Second Baptist Church, in which he criticized the crime-related policies of "left-wing progressives" and urged congregates to "throw those bums out of office," has raised questions about whether the church could be within the crosshairs of the Internal Revenue Service. Nonprofit organizations like the church are prohibited from lobbying or campaigning on behalf of or against a candidate for elected office, otherwise they could lose their federal tax exemption.
A professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center said the senior pastor's comments are unlikely to result in such an action, because they did not mention a candidate or even a political party by name.
"That would be difficult to successfully claim that the exemption of the church should be revoked on the basis of that statement, because of how indefinite it is," said UH professor Johnny Rex Buckles, a national scholar in nonprofit organization law and taxation. "... It's ambiguous as to whom he is referring."
Young, whose church has thousands of members across six locations in the Houston area, opened his Sunday sermon by speaking about crime trends in Houston and Harris County and claiming that local elected officials are responsible for an uptick in violent crime over the last few years. He called Houston "one of the two or three most dangerous cities in the world to live in."
"You see any difference when you put left-wing progressives in office?" Young asked. "... If Houston and Harris County is to survive, we had better throw those bums out of office. They are not doing their job that we have called them to."
Young's comments drew applause from the crowd assembled in his church, and drew the ire of Odus Evbagharu, the chair of the Harris County Democratic Party. He said Young "crossed the line" and that the party is considering whether to file a complaint with the IRS.
The IRS says on its website that nonprofit organizations, including churches, "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office." The IRS also says that comments made by a church representative during an official church function could constitute political campaign intervention by the church.
"I believe it was a violation of that," Evbagharu said. "He didn't have to mention anyone by name. ... In the major two-party system we have, who is the opposite of the bums he says we should vote out?"
Second Baptist Church could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
IRS spokesperson Michael Devine said in an email that it could not comment on the matter.
"It is against the law for the IRS to comment or make unauthorized disclosures of details of a taxpayer's relationship with the IRS," Devine wrote. "That protection is for every individual, business entity and Exempt Organization. As your research is about a specific taxpayer, I must decline to comment on general questions as answers could be applied to that specific taxpayer."
Even if a complaint were to be filed with the IRS, and the IRS revoked the church's tax-exempt status over Young's comments, Buckles said he does not think the IRS would prevail if the revocation were to be challenged in court. Buckles said there also are legal questions about whether the IRS could apply the comments made by an individual pastor to a church at large.
"I am not convinced that if the Supreme Court were to hear a case where a sermon took a position on a political candidate, that the court would agree that the church is taking the position," Buckles said. "I'm not at all convinced that the Supreme Court would agree with that position."