Federal tax law, as it relates to tax-exempt religious ministries, is pretty clear — houses of worship may not legally intervene in political campai
May 23, 2008

Federal tax law, as it relates to tax-exempt religious ministries, is pretty clear — houses of worship may not legally intervene in political campaigns, either in support of or opposition to a candidate or a party. Those that violate the law run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.

Once in a great while, unfortunately, the Internal Revenue Service launches investigations of ministries that don’t appear to have violated the law at all. This happened earlier this year when the IRS went after the United Church of Christ — the entire 1.2 million-member denomination, not just one congregation — after Barack Obama spoke at the UCC’s annual convention.

Today, cooler heads prevailed, and the church was cleared of any wrongdoing.

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.”

I’m still curious about how and why this investigation was launched in the first place, and I can’t help but wonder if partisan considerations were a driving factor.

While church probes are not especially uncommon, it’s rather extraordinary for the IRS to go after an entire denomination. That this denomination happens to be Obama’s, and this happens to be an election year, raises some suspicion.

Indeed, for the IRS to take such an unusual step, you’d think that the UCC’s conduct must have been extraordinarily controversial. But therein lies the rub: by all appearances, the UCC didn’t come close to running afoul of tax law.

Remember, the law says a ministry can’t “intervene” in a campaign. So, what happened in this case? The United Church of Christ, like many Protestant denominations, held an annual meeting. The UCC invited Obama, the Christian church’s most high-profile member, to speak about his perspective on the role of faith in public life, which he did.

Did Obama use his appearance as a campaign event? No. Did UCC officials use the opportunity to endorse his campaign? No. Did anything happen at the conference that amounted to “intervention” in a political campaign? Apparently not. In fact, church officials checked with counsel beforehand, just to make sure this wouldn’t be a legal problem.

What we’re left with is an awkward set of circumstances — in an election year, the Bush administration’s IRS investigated a liberal denomination for allowing the Democratic frontrunner to give a non-partisan speech.

Now, obviously, with this morning’s announcement in mind, everything worked out and the UCC is in the clear. But it might be nice to know why the IRS started this investigation in the first place. Was the decision made by a Bush political appointee?

The evidence against the UCC was so thin, it’s hard not to question what prompted this probe. Maybe some enterprising Democratic lawmaker could ask the IRS for an explanation?

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