U.S. Politics and Churches – the Taxman Cometh
CHICAGO – With religion playing its usual prominent role in the lengthy U.S. presidential election campaign, some churches are again finding themselves in trouble with the taxman.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service — watchdog for what churches can do and still keep their tax-exempt status — has alerted at least two organizations that they may have crossed the line by engaging in forbidden “political activities.”
The United Church of Christ announced recently that it had received a letter from the IRS that it was under investigation because of a speech that Senator Barack Obama — Democratic presidential hopeful and a member of that church — gave to its General Synod last year.
Obama spoke to about 10,000 people at the gathering, a few months after he had formally announced as a presidential candidate. The Cleveland-based church said he was one of only 60 speakers and the church did nothing improper or illegal.
Meanwhile the Los Angeles Times reports that the IRS has opened a similar inquiry into the Rev. Wiley Drake, a prominent Southern Baptist preacher in Buena Park, California, because he endorsed Mike Huckabee‘s Republican presidential nomination bid in a written statement on church letterhead and on a church-related Internet radio show.
Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, is also a Southern Baptist preacher.
“Pastors and churches have 1st Amendment rights just like everybody else,” the newspaper quoted Erik Stanley, an attorney as saying. “Wiley Drake has the same right to make a personal endorsement as anybody.”
But the newspaper said the Americans United for Separation of Church and State had blown the whistle on the matter six month ago and asked for an IRS investigation.
Such probes are not new or different. The IRS investigated the liberal All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, for nearly two years because of an anti-war sermon delivered there during the 2004 presidential election campaign.
That probe was finally ended in September with the IRS concluding the church had indeed intervened in the election campaign. But it left its tax-exempt status alone, saying it was convinced the church had policies in place to assure compliance with the law and that the matter was a “one-time occurrence.”
The church later demanded the IRS issue an apology for going after it in the first place.