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Pastor’s endorsement of candidate probed

Times Staff Writer

An attorney for clergyman Wiley S. Drake confirmed Wednesday that the Internal Revenue Service was investigating the pastor’s endorsement of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential bid, written on church letterhead and announced during a church-affiliated Internet radio show.

“Pastors and churches have 1st Amendment rights just like everybody else,” said Erik Stanley, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund. “Wiley Drake has the same right to make a personal endorsement as anybody.”

The inquiry into the Buena Park pastor’s actions comes six months after Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged the IRS to investigate the nonprofit status of Drake’s church because of the endorsement. Stanley said the IRS sent Drake -- a former national leader of the Southern Baptist Convention -- a letter of inquiry Feb. 5.

As tax-exempt organizations, churches are barred from campaigning for candidates. IRS officials declined to comment on the matter, citing privacy regulations.

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“It’s always important when these blatant efforts to ignore the tax laws are investigated,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “When you use the resources of the church to promote a candidate, you have violated the strict prohibition in the tax code against intervention in a political campaign.”

Shortly after learning of Americans United’s complaint, Drake called on his followers to pray for the deaths of two of the liberal group’s officials, Joe Conn and Jeremy Leaming.

The IRS has previously investigated churches for perceived political activity. An antiwar sermon before the 2004 presidential election by a former rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena prompted a two-year IRS probe that ended in September. The IRS said the church would continue to qualify for tax-exempt status, but added that the sermon amounted to intervention in the race.

Drake, 64, endorsed Huckabee Aug. 11 in a news release on church letterhead and two days later on his radio show. He declined to comment Wednesday, but earlier had defended his actions.

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“I said I personally endorse Mike Huckabee,” he said. “And yes, I used my letterhead. I used it to pay my bills, write my mother, that’s who I am. I am a spokesman for the church, but I was speaking personally.”

Stanley said the fact that Drake used his church letterhead was a “red herring.”

“You are allowed to identify yourself as a pastor,” he said. “That’s who you are. It’s not saying the church endorsed [Huckabee]. This was a personal endorsement, and that’s what the facts will show.”

Drake is a longtime Orange County evangelical pastor frequently in the news. In the 1990s, he protested “Gay Day” at Disneyland and fought Buena Park officials who had tried to prevent him from sheltering homeless people on church grounds.

He gained national prominence in 2006, serving a one-year term as the second vice president of the 42,000-church Southern Baptist Convention.

That year he received a stern warning from the group’s top lawyer for creating a Southern Baptist Convention letterhead and using it to endorse Richard Mountjoy, a former Republican state senator from Monrovia, in his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.

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david.mckibben@latimes.com

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