A Florida church known for its Muslim bashing is now taking aim at a gay mayoral candidate — and possibly endangering its tax exemption.
Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville has been attacking City Commissioner Craig Lowe, one of two candidates vying for mayor in an April 13 run-off election. The church erected a sign on its property last month that declared, “No Homo Mayor.” That was followed by a YouTube video in which Wayne Sapp, a pastor at the church, targets Lowe, whom he doesn’t identify by name. The video begins with Sapp proclaiming “No Homo Mayor” and asserting that Gainesville is the 11th gayest city in America. “We’re talking about the homos, the fags, the queers, and now we got one running for mayor of Gainesville, trying to convert Gainesville into Homoville,” he says. “We can’t have it.” In the video, Sapp complains that Dove World Outreach Center called more than 100 churches to ask that they join a protest against homosexuals running for office, but none would do so. Sapp lashes out at some ministers and churches by name and urges churchgoers to oust pastors who won’t take a stand. “Vote’em out of there,” he says. “They’re leading you to Hell, and you’re following.”
Unlike its rhetoric attacking Muslims, the church’s latest campaign could lead to trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. In a March 19 story, The Gainesville Sun reported that the “No Homo Mayor” sign likely contravened the law banning tax-exempt organizations from advocating for or against political candidates. A week later, the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote a letter to the IRS asking the agency to investigate the church and ensure the law is enforced. “This is an open and shut case,” said Lynn in a statement. “The church freely admits that it intended to intervene in the election in violation of federal tax law.”
Eric Smith, a spokesman for the IRS, told Hatewatch that the agency is prohibited by law from commenting on investigations, though changes in the status of tax-exempt organizations are reported in a weekly IRS bulletin. It’s relatively uncommon for an organization’s tax-exempt status to be revoked, and the process often takes months or years. (Meanwhile, county officials are conducting an unrelated investigation into whether the church’s for-profit furniture business nullifies its local tax exemption. Sheila Crapo, who works in the Alachua County Property Appraiser’s Office, said she had met with church officials and that the property appraiser would make a decision before June, when the county sends out any denials for exemptions. The church property is assessed at $1.65 million, according to county records.)
The Rev. Terry Jones, who heads the Dove World Outreach Center, told The Gainesville Sun that the church was merely exercising its First Amendment Right to free speech when it put up the sign. “We are within our constitutional rights,” he said.
Not so, say tax law experts. Both Robert Atkinson, a professor at Florida State University College of Law, and Laura Chisolm, a professor at Case Western Reserve University Law School, told Hatewatch that the church’s “No Homo Mayor” message appears to violate the prohibition on tax-exempt organizations taking part in political campaigns. However, the law often isn’t enforced for “de minimus” (small) infractions; Atkinson noted that leaders of large churches routinely tell members to vote against candidates who support abortion rights and that Catholic clergy have tried to deny religious rites to such candidates.
But Chisolm felt the IRS might act in this case. “When the activity is as ‘in your face’ as this, I suspect the IRS might not ignore it, although they may try just to get a promise to quit it and not do it again,” she wrote in an E-mail. “The first amendment free speech argument has been tried before, and hasn’t worked. Although the government cannot prohibit anyone from speaking, the courts, including the Supreme Court, have held that the government can condition the privilege of tax exemption on forgoing certain kinds of speech, as long as there are alternative avenues for the speech.”
Dove Outreach has since retreated somewhat. The Gainesville Sun reported this week that the church changed its sign from “No Homo Mayor” to “No Homo.” (However, a video remains posted on the church’s website in which Sapp says that Gainesville can’t afford a gay mayor.) Americans United responded that the church’s action came too late and that the IRS should still revoke its tax exemption.
Regardless of the IRS’s decision, the church seems to be on theologically shaky ground. “It’s ironic that a church would be doing this,” Atkinson said. “I think they would find themselves constrained not by the laws of the state but by the principles of Christianity that forbid hate generally.”