Feathered Bastard

Steven Anderson's Three Alarm Baptist Church: Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State Weighs In

ABC 15's raw footage of the pastor's freak-out when questioned about his business practices

Pastor Anderson, the hate-Obama-I-want-the-Prez-to-die preacher-man, admitted to me in the interview captured by ABC 15 above, that he's been receiving mail for his fire alarm service Anderson Fire and Security Incorporated at the same physical address listed online for his church. He also admitted that he has been storing equipment at this address, in a space his business supposedly pays rent on.

Anderson did not deny that some of the instructional videos on his business' YouTube site were shot in his church, which is located in a strip-mall at 2707 W. Southern Ave. in Tempe. Since our verbal back-and-forth on Sunday -- and since CNN and ABC national picked up the story -- Anderson's YouTube and Web sites for his fire alarm business have been inaccessible. (YouTube lists the account as being "closed.")

Anderson's filings with the Arizona Corporation Commission, however, remain part of the public record. He has a listing for his church, incorporated in 2006, and one for his business, incorporated in 2008. Both give a Tempe address that Anderson told me is his home, and which is different from the Southern Ave. address for the physical church.

Anderson's church is set up in Arizona as a non-profit corporation.

"It is required that [an entity] be incorporated as a non-profit," stated CorpCom spokeswoman Rebecca Wilder, "in order that it be granted tax-exempt status."

Concerning Anderson's filings, Wilder observed that his "files are in order," but that, "If he's running a business out of his church, that might be something we might look at."

Wilder also indicated that it was "not unusual" for a home address to be listed for a church or a business.

Seeking a broader explanation of how churches are treated under the tax code, I gave Barry Lynn a call in D.C. Lynn is the head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, itself a non-profit, and one that recently condemned Anderson for his die-Obama remarks, calling on the religious right to repudiate them as well.

Lynn is an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, and he has more than one wacky pastor praying for his death, just as Anderson is praying for Obama's demise. Lynn told me that a church has a great deal of latitude in avoiding government scrutiny, largely because of America's freedom of religion, as enshrined under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"Most churches are automatically granted tax exempt status," Lynn informed me. "They don't even have to apply for it."

Still, that doesn't mean that a church can legally abuse this status.

"You can't utilize the resources of the charity or in this case the church for unrelated purposes," he told me. "Unless you pay a tax on unrelated business income.

"Unless it's a fire alarm that'll tell you when you're getting close to hell, there would be a tax consequence for using his tax exempt resources, his building, his tools, etc., for profit making purposes."

Lynn told me there's another issue: If you run a charity or church, you're prohibited from self-inurement, that is, profiting from your charitable enterprise.

"If Anderson, for example, used the church basement to put together his fire alarms," stated Lynn, "to make a profit himself personally, that would run into a possible violation of the rule against self-inurement, or profiting from the charity's own resources."

Basements are rarities in Arizona, but I think you get Lynn's drift. Indeed, the articles of incorporation that Anderson signed for his Arizona non-profit specifically address this issue of self-inurement in the document's boilerplate.

"No part of the net earning of the corporation shall inure to the benefit of, or be distributable to its members, directors, officers, or other private persons, except that the corporation shall be authorized and empowered to pay reasonable compensation for services rendered..."

Regarding federal 501(c)(3) exemption, Lynn said that not all churches apply for it, but that it benefits the church if they have it, because then donations are tax-deductible for the donors:

"A few churches actually hate the government so much...they say, `We don't even want this benefit. We want people to give and we don't expect that they're going to get any benefit from the government.'"

Lynn explained that churches are exempt from having to file a federal Form 990, where a charity reports various financial details. Audits of houses of worship are notoriously hard to get, he added. And even Anderson's recent sermons "praying" for the President's death, would not be enough to make his church subject to an IRS audit.

I asked Lynn about the pastors who're praying for his demise. He related that there is an "ugly phenomenon" in Christianity of so-called "imprecatory prayers."

"They're more familiarly known as curses," said Lynn. "They're sort of the Christian equivalent of a voodoo doll with a large pin stuck in it."

Interestingly, two of Anderson's annual reports to the state Corporation Commission do include financial statements. For 2006, total offerings are listed at $17,302.75 and total expenses as $17,070.87. Only two people received "wages" according to the summary: Anderson was paid $700, and a Roger Jimenez was paid $900. (These summaries don't have Anderson accepting much for himself. On the other hand, he did state in the video above that none of the money from the collection plate goes to him.)

For 2007, offerings were up, to a total of $32,310.44. Expenses topped out at $32,415.03. Anderson received $700 in wages; Jimenez, $300. The annual report for 2008 (filed July of 2009) included no such summary. CorpCom PIO Wilder told me that, "After September 26, 2008, corporations are no longer required to file financial information in their annual reports."

You can read more about IRS guidelines for churches and religious institutions, here. I'm still waiting for comment from the Arizona Department of Revenue on the matter. Essentially, it's the pastor's reaction to questions about how his business and religious dealings overlap that have made this an issue. I look forward to seeing him again this Sunday, when another protest of his church is planned, so I can hopefully ask him some follow-up questions.