State Agency Targets Church – No it is not Putin’s Russia

A Christian denomination invites its most famous active member, who is running for the state presidency, to address its landmark synod on how his faith manifests in his public life. Almost nine months later, as it becomes clear the member has an outstanding chance of winning, a state agency launches an aggressive investigation into the church, claiming that the member’s address could signify the church was involved in politics and jeopardise its tax-exempt status.

The Rev. John Thomas at the UCC synod.

The Rev. John Thomas at the UCC synod.

The Russian state system is manipulated to ruthlessly deal with opponents challenging Vladimir Putin’s party for the presidency but this piece is about the USA’s Internal Revenue Service’s February 20, broadside against the United Church of Christ because of Democratic contender Barack Obama’s address June 23, 2007, to its 50th anniversary General Synod in Hartford, Connecticut.

“Because a reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ (“church”) has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status as a church described in section 502 (c)(3) and exempt under section 501( a)- this letter is notice of the beginning of a church tax inquiry described in IRC section 761 1 (a),” the IRS wrote to the UCC. “We are sending it because we believe it is necessary to resolve questions concerning your tax-exempt status as a church described in section 501 (c)(3) and in section 170(b}(1) (A)(i) of the Code.

“Our concerns are based on articles posted on several websites including the church’s which state that United States Presidential Candidate Senator Barack Obama addressed nearly 10,000 church members gathered at the United Church of Christ’s biennial General Synod at the Madford Civic Center, on June 23, 2007. In addition, 40 Obama volunteers staffed campaign tables outside the center to promote his campaign.”

The UCC reports on its web site that “before Obama spoke to the national gathering of 10,000 UCC members, Associate General Minister Edith A. Guffey, who serves as administrator of the biennial General Synod, admonished the crowd that Obama’s appearance was not to be a campaign-related event and that electioneering would not be tolerated. No political leaflets, signs or placards were allowed, and activity by the Obama campaign was barred from inside the Hartford Civic Center venue.”

The church is responding to the IRS letter by assembling a team of lawyers in Cleveland which is working with a 15 day deadline to address all questions posed by the IRS.

In a Feb. 27 letter to members and supporters, UCC general minister and President John H. Thomas announced the establishment of a fund he said was necessary “to ensure that money given for mission will not be needed to pay legal bills, instead of ministry needs.”

“In order to adequately defend ourselves as well as protect the broader principle of the freedom of religious communities to entertain questions of faith and public life, we will need to secure expert legal counsel, and the cost of this defence, we are told, could approach or exceed six figures,” Thomas wrote. “This is troubling news.”

In presidential primaries season, when candidates are wearing their religion on their sleeve, especially in the Republican Party, whose candidates must kowtow to the Southern Baptists through espousal of their born again bona fides, the singling out of the United Church by the IRS reeks to high heaven.

We know that the parties canvas churches and members approach candidates to canvas on their behalf. In 2004, John Kerry’s campaign was approached by a Democratic activist and Catholic in Columbus, Ohio, named Eric McFadden about canvassing heavily Catholic counties in Ohio. When he asked one of the campaign’s Ohio field directors for permission, explaining that he wanted to help organizers appeal to Catholic voters, her response was: “We don’t do white churches.”

Maybe Mormon lay preacher Mitt Romney, while he was in the GOP race did not go up to Salt Lake City and ask for an endorsement and ordained Southern Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee doesn’t have to ask for his denomination’s support.

This is the June 13, 2007 introduction of and address and by President George W. Bush to the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio, Texas but Bush was not on the campaign trail:

This is Guffey’s introduction of Obama at the United Church of Christ synod:

The full video can e viewed at the UCC’s site but maybe you can get back to watching after you’ve finished reading.

The IRS did acknowledge in its letter to the UCC that churches can invite political contenders on certain conditions.

“The prohibition against political campaign activity does not prevent candidates from being invited to speak at an event of an organization described in section 501 (c)(3). If a candidate is invited to speak En his or her capacity as a candidate, then other candidates running for the same office must also be invited to speak and there should be no indication of support for, or opposition to, any candidate by the organization. Also, the prohibition does not prevent an organization’s officials from being involved in a political campaign, so long as those officials do not in any way utilize the organization’s financial resources, facilities, or personnel and clearly indicate that the actions taken or the statements made are those of the individuals and not of the organization,” the IRS wrote.

The issue is whether similar letters have been sent to all the churches where candidates have been invited or have invited themselves, a sign that unlike the Kerry campaign, the IRS does liberal churches, and conservative fundamentalists.

It could just be a case of political silly season and hopefully not a bit of contagion from being too wrapped up in bed with the evil empires of Russia and China. But if the latter is the case, have a heart Raul Castro, the times they are a changing.

     

Mark Lee

About Mark Lee

Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.

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