A Senate bid by its pastor would mean IRS scrutiny for Ebenezer

Story highlights

  • The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, is considering running for the U.S. Senate.
  • If Warnock emerges as the Democratic challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, he would face a minefield of Internal Revenue Service rules that could put him — and the legendary Ebenezer — in a precarious position.
  • Churches, like many other nonprofit organizations, are classified by the IRS as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations. That means they don't pay federal income taxes and donations from congregants can be deducted from their taxable income, but the churches cannot actively engage in political campaigns.
  • Churches have objected to the restriction in the past. In the run-up to last year's elections, for instance, more than 1,800 churches participated in a "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" event protesting the IRS rule.
  • A former IRS attorney pointed out another problem: A rival campaign or group could file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing Ebenezer of providing unreported in-kind contributions to Warnock's campaign if he so much as uses a church email account for campaign business.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock strode to the front of Ebenezer Baptist Church on a recent Sunday to address the rumors swirling about his future.

Yes, he said, he is considering running for the U.S. Senate. No, he hasn’t decided what he’ll do yet. But one thing is certain: He’s not leaving the pulpit.

“Preachers all over the country, shaking off their resume,” he said to laughter and applause from the pews. “Tell them to hold on to it. We’ve had five pastors since 1886, and I plan on keeping up the tradition.”

If Warnock emerges as the Democrats’ chosen challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, he would be trekking into a minefield of Internal Revenue Service rules that could put him — and the legendary Ebenezer — in a precarious position.

Warnock, who told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he would make up his mind on whether to run within weeks, could soon see GOP trackers setting up cameras to monitor his Sunday sermons searching for a legal slip-up.

“If this pastor was really serious about it, the church — in the interest of protecting the congregation and the church itself — should ask him to take a leave of absence, open his own campaign headquarters and go forth,” said tax attorney Marcus Owens, the former head of exempt organizations for the IRS.

A tricky balance

Churches, like many other nonprofit organizations, are classified by the IRS as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations. That means they don’t pay federal income taxes and donations from congregants can be deducted from their taxable income — and they can’t actively engage in political campaigns.

Preachers often discuss hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage and climate change from the pulpits, but they risk losing their tax-exempt status if they openly back candidates or pay for campaign activities. It’s a line that some pastors openly flout in the heat of a political campaign.

In the run-up to last year's elections, for instance, more than 1,800 churches participated in a "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" event protesting the IRS rule. An IRS spokesman would not discuss enforcement operations for privacy reasons, but church audits are rare.

“The IRS has never been worried about that,” said Robert Tuttle, an expert in church-state law at George Washington University’s law school. “What the IRS is worried about is people using money that is donated by folks who then take a tax exemption, and yet the institution turns around and uses it for political purposes — electioneering purposes.”

Warnock would not be able to promote his candidacy from the pulpit or use any church resources for the campaign. The church could not endorse Warnock or collect money for him. Any political activity such as forums or get-out-the-vote efforts must be done in a nonpartisan way.

Experts interviewed by the AJC said Ebenezer — where Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. once preached — would not have to give equal pulpit time to Isakson or any other candidate as long as Warnock kept his campaign out of his sermons.

Similar rules apply for any nonprofit. Democrat Michelle Nunn left her post at the nonprofit Points of Light foundation to run for Senate in 2014. (She lost and now runs the Atlanta-based relief agency CARE USA.) But that's not a financial option for everyone.

Spotlight on the pulpit

A Warnock bid would put Ebenezer under a microscope, with political foes eager to stir up a controversy. Owens pointed out that the IRS is not the only problem: A rival campaign or group could file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing Ebenezer of providing the Warnock campaign unreported in-kind contributions if he so much as uses a church email account for campaign business.

Carletta Sims, a Mableton attorney and a longtime member of the church, said she would not mind the increased scrutiny. She noted that Warnock has already pulled off a complicated double-duty: He earned a doctorate degree shortly after becoming Ebenezer’s leader.

“If he makes that commitment and he’s supported by the congregation, he would do a great job,” Sims said. “I’m confident that, should he decide to run for office, and he wears two hats, he’ll do a great job.”

Beginning in the nation's early days, several states banned clergy from serving as legislators. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Tennessee's ban in 1978 on First Amendment grounds.

It's still not common, but in an interview with the AJC, Warnock was ready with examples of pastors who have preached on Sundays and campaigned on Mondays. He pointed to former New York U.S. Reps. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Floyd Flake; and ex-Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Bill Gray, all black preachers who maintained a presence on the pulpit after they were elected.

“I’m a pastor, and so I would need to think about the implications for me,” Warnock told the AJC, adding that he was consulting with advisers on how he could walk the line. He told his flock days later that he needed their help and support as he worked to make up his mind.

“This is what I need you to pray about. I need you to pray with me about. The question is not whether I’m leaving. The question is, can I serve the people of Ebenezer and the people of Georgia as a servant at the same time?” he said. “Some people say you can’t. Some people say you can.”

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