LOUISVILLE, Ky. – An eastern Kentucky Baptist pastor troubled by President Barack Obama's views on gay marriage violated federal law when he urged his followers to vote the president out of office in November, a Washington watchdog group said.
Pastor Ronnie Spriggs of Hager Hill Freewill Baptist Church said during a May 13 sermon that he wants Obama voted out of office because of the president's support of gay marriage.
Obama "said that he believes that gays ought to have the right to marry in the United States. That's the president of the United States who said that," Spriggs told his flock during the sermon. "I don't know about you folks, but I'm going on record and I don't care who knows it. I want the guy out."
The statements elicited cheers from the flock and supporting shouts of "Amen!"
Americans United for Separation of Church and State said Spriggs' comments violate a federal law that says tax-exempt churches should not oppose a candidate.
Executive Director Barry Lynn said the group receives several tips during election seasons of churches that may be violating the law, but he said only a few reports are sent to the IRS.
"This is one of the most over the top, unequivocal statements of opposition to a candidate that we have seen in a long time. Usually it's a little bit fuzzier," Lynn said. "This guy clearly doesn't care what the law says."
He said so far this year, the group has filed two IRS complaints concerning the presidential election.
Spriggs did not return phone calls to his home and the church. A video of the sermon was posted on the Johnson County church's website.
Spriggs touched on the topic briefly during the sermon, beginning by announcing, "I said I wasn't going to get into it but I will for a moment ... I'm disappointed in our president, I'm going on record."
He said "this country can't afford that kind of ideology in that office."
Obama earlier this month declared his unequivocal support for gay marriage, the first time a sitting president has done so. Gay rights advocates cheered Obama's declaration, after urging him for years to show his support. The president once opposed gay marriage but more recently had said his views were "evolving."
Lynn said Spriggs is free to condemn gay marriage to his followers, but he crosses the line by encouraging them to vote against the president.
"What violates (tax code) is linking it to a candidate and opposition to a candidate," he said. His group filed another complaint last month against the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, where bishops urged listeners to vote against Obama.
Lynn said if the IRS decides to investigate, there are a range of punishments including the church losing its tax-exempt status. But he said he believes that has happened only once in the last 20 years when a church in New York took paid for a newspaper ad urging readers not to vote for Bill Clinton during his first race for president.
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