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Pastors plot courses on HB1215

By Mary Garrigan, The Rapid City Journal (Rapid City, South Dakota), July 17, 2006

South Dakotans will take their religious beliefs about abortion into the voting booth with them in November, but area pastors are divided about how they will approach the upcoming referendum on HB1215 in their pulpits.

At First Assembly of God in Rapid City, the Rev. Jeff Anderson plans to speak openly and often about the proposed law that would ban most abortions in the state, which has been referred to a public vote in November.

His church will host a Life and Liberty rally Aug. 13 that Anderson said promises to be "distinctively pro-life in every way."

Leading a church that takes a biblical world view means that "we don't separate the secular from the spiritual here at First Assembly," Anderson said.

The Rev. Wilbur Holz, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Rapid City, said he probably won't address HB1215 from his pulpit.

"I try to keep politics out of the pulpit," Holz said.

He believes Christians should be active in the political realm, but not from the pulpit.

"Certainly, there are other places for Christians to address issues like abortion, but I don't believe the pulpit is the place to say them," he said.

Because most people already know their position on HB1215, Holz said that preaching about it will only increase the polarization it causes in society.

"It's a very divisive issue, and I don't think preaching about it would be helpful to people."

Like numerous other city pastors, the Rev. Greg Blanc, pastor of Calvary Chapel of the Black Hills in Rapid City, said his church isn't planning any special events or sermons in support of HB1215. But he will encourage his congregation to vote and won't shy away from talking about the referendum from the pulpit of his small, evangelical church, he said.

"I'm not going to tell someone how to vote on any issue, but I will tell them what the preponderance of the biblical evidence is on the topic," he said.

An attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund - a national, legal consortium that works to advance conservative Christian values in the public sphere - will be in Rapid City on Thursday, July 20, at noon at the La Crosse Street Perkins restaurant, to encourage pastors such as Blanc to advocate for HB1215. The briefing also will educate pastors about exactly what they can and can't say from the pulpit about election issues without jeopardizing their church's tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.

At the luncheon and briefing, sponsored by the South Dakota Family Policy Council, legal consortium staff members will offer legal advice to churches on safeguarding their tax-exempt status when dealing with political issues from the pulpit, according to Robert Regier, executive director of the Family Policy Council.

"Most of our work on the abortion bill will be with and in the churches - mobilizing them, and getting them out to vote," Regier said.

The Rapid City luncheon is one of seven pastor meetings around the state sponsored by the South Dakota Family Policy Council. Through its Witherspoon Pastor Network, the council offers information, education and other resources, including print and video materials, to churches about the abortion referendum and other issues.

In June, the IRS warned churches nationwide about engaging in political activity that would threaten their nonprofit 501(c)(3) designation. But the legal group advises pastors that they have more freedom for political speech within IRS regulations than they might realize, Regier said.

The legal group has pledged to assist any South Dakota church that is subject to an IRS investigation because of HB1215, he said.

At First Assembly, Anderson is careful to select his words to avoid violating IRS regulations.

"I have never stepped over that line of endorsing candidates, but what I can say from the pulpit is that we ought to send thank-you notes to Gov. Rounds for signing this bill," he said. "I'm not worried about the IRS. That's just a shot across the bow by our opponents who are using the IRS to try to silence truth-tellers."

Anderson believes South Dakota voters will uphold the abortion ban in November, and he said churches will play a big role in it.

"That's one of the problems with pulpits in America," he said. "There is not a clear sound from the shepherds, so the sheep are straying."

Bishop Blase Cupich of the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City spoke about HB1215 in a June 24 guest editorial in the Rapid City Journal. He called for civility in the debate and for the understanding that any opinion on the abortion issue is informed by a moral viewpoint.

Cupich is finalizing some talking points for priests of the diocese to use in sermons that he will make public soon.

Sermons, prayer rallies and other events in support of HB1215 are likely to increase in area churches as the November election nears, according to Sandy Rhoden, chairwoman of Western Dakota Families. The small, pro-life organization from Union Center offers a Proclaiming Life and Liberty event to churches and other groups.

About 100 people turned out in Belle Fourche on July 9 for that group's second Proclaiming Life and Liberty program. The first was held in June at the Community Baptist Church of Union Center, and a third is scheduled for Sunday, July 23, in Newell. So far, the Union Center church has had two requests from Rapid City groups to present its Proclaiming Life and Liberty program here.

Rhoden said she would like to see more clergy take the lead in promoting the passage of HB1215, like her pastor at Union Center, Wes Labrier, has done.

Labrier leads the Proclaiming Life and Liberty events, which use hymns, scripture and personal testimony from its church members, who say that abortion has caused destruction in their lives.

John and Sylvia Rhoden are members of the Union Center church, and they speak about their abortion experience and the emotional and spiritual trauma it brought to their lives during Proclaiming Life and Liberty events.

To them, abortion is not a political issue nor a religious issue. "This is a life-and-death issue," Sylvia Rhoden said. Two years ago, Rhoden began speaking publicly about the abortion she had 30 years ago.

Regier says it is difficult to predict the outcome of the November referendum. But he believes that pro-life pastors, churches and post-abortive women such as Sylvia Rhoden will be essential to its success.

"I think the more the people of this state hear about abortion, the more likely they'll be to support HB1215," he said. "Chances are good - if we're effective at getting our message out - it will pass."

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