IRS Clears Obama's Church
Today the United Church of Christ, the national church to which presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama belongs, announced that the Internal Revenue Service has found “that the activity about which we had concern did not constitute …a violation of the requirements of the requirements of section 501(c)(3)."
The "concern" that apparently launched the investigation stemmed from a speech Senator Obama gave to the UCC General Synod, the all-church gathering held every two years, during the church's fiftieth anniversary celebration.
In other words, the UCC received a complete and clean review.
General Minister and President Rev. John Thomas said, “While I was never really concerned that any violations would be noted, I am gratified both with the speed of the review and the endorsement of the way in which we carried out Senator Obama’s visit.”
Despite the fact that the church had invited Obama to speak before he became a candidate for President, and despite the fact that UCC Nationwide Special Counsel Donald C. Clark, Esq., had carefully prepared the church leadership with the legal guidelines they needed to follow, the IRS launched an investigation. “We were confident that once the IRS was aware of all of the facts surrounding the Senator’s appearance, it would conclude that the UCC was in compliance with the governing Revenue Ruling,” Clark said.
“IRS regulations require that a senior official form a reasonable belief that a religious organization no longer qualifies for exemption from taxation before initiating such a church tax inquiry. In order for such a determination to be reasonable, Congress should require that the service communicate with the church before an inquiry, with its attendant costs and chilling effect on constitutionally protected associational rights, is launched. However, that currently is neither a Congressional mandate nor IRS practice, and was not done in this case,” Clark added.
In addition, the IRS waited more than six months, until Senator Obama was emerging as a possible front-runner, to investigate.
In this election year, church and politics have come a little too close for comfort for many Americans, liberal and evangelical alike. Yet, it is one thing when political parties try to use religion as a “wedge issue” or in an attack ad or even in email chains, and quite another when it is a government agency itself that is, to all appearances, using its power to create distractions or negative publicity for a religious body because of their faith stances or their members.
This fall, All Saints Church, Pasadena, Calif., received a letter from the IRS that closed a dormant investigation into the church’s tax-exempt status after nearly two years and without the audit actually ever taking place. This final IRS letter did not alter the Church’s tax-exempt status. This investigation was launched in response to a sermon previous Rector Rev. George Regas had preached, prior to the 2004 Presidential election, against the Iraq War in which Jesus debated both candidates for President. In the All Saints case, however and unlike the UCC situation, the IRS also concluded without explanation that the sermon in question “constituted intervention in the 2004 President election.”
All Saints Church has announced that it has formally referred the numerous procedural and legal errors of the exam to the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service and demanded correction and an apology. The current Rector, the Rev. J. Edwin Bacon, Jr. has expressed “great concern about the IRS closing letter and its implications for freedom of the pulpit at All Saints Church.”
Americans clearly believe that their many faith voices need to be raised in the public square. We need an Internal Revenue Service that is clear in its guidelines for tax-exempt religious organizations and we need the IRS to follow those guidelines. Otherwise, we are only left to conclude that there is either an organized or even a disorganized effort to repress certain faith voices while giving others a free pass.
Please e-mail On Faith if you'd like to receive an email notification when On Faith sends out a new question.