Tennessee Equality Project says Bellevue in violation of tax-exempt status

(WMC-TV) - One of the biggest churches in the Mid-South is in the middle of a heated political controversy.

The Tennessee Equality Project claims Bellevue Baptist is in violation of its (501) (c) (3) tax exempt status by having up a very clear link up to Family Action of Tennessee, a website that appears to endorse certain city council members.

A red banner across the top of Bellevue Baptist's website reads, "Important Pro-Family Information about the Upcoming Memphis City Council Election October 6."  That link takes you to the Family Action of Tennessee website.

The site states, "The following Memphis City Council members have stood strong for pro-family values," and lists Bill Morrison, Bill Boyd and Kemp Conrad.

"It's pretty clear in this case that the website that Bellevue Baptist is asking people to look at endorses candidates, it names names," said Rob Boston with Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Boston said he believes Bellevue Baptist stepped over the boundary spelled out in federal law which prohibits churches from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign.

The IRS could not comment on this situation, but states on its website, "An organization has control over whether it establishes a link to another site."

"Links to candidate-related material, by themselves, do not necessarily constitute political campaign intervention," the website continues.

Some of the things the IRS takes into consideration are the context of the link, whether all candidates are represented, and any exempt purpose served by offering the link.

Boston said churches can talk about the issues all they want, but cannot name names.

"On any number of issues, churches speak out and no one is really challenging that," said Boston.  "The line is only crossed when a house of worship advises people to vote for or against a specific candidate or a political party."

If the IRS finds a church in violation of the law, it could revoke its tax-exempt status and impose certain excise taxes.

Bellevue Baptist did not want to comment further.  The church spokesperson referred me to Wednesday's statement which said in part that the Tennessee Equality Project is seeking to unseat councilmen who want to protect city employees and employers from having to take a position contrary to their Biblical beliefs in regards to the gay and lesbian lifestyle.

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