Obama speech to denomination spurs IRS investigation of UCC

A speech that Barack Obama made last year to his fellow Congregationalists has spurred an Internal Revenue Service investigation that threatens the tax-exempt status of an entire denomination.Leaders of the Illinois senator’s United Church of Christ are fighting back, saying the IRS charges are baseless and “disturbing.”

In a letter dated Feb. 20 and received by church officials Feb. 25, IRS official Marsha Ramirez said “a reasonable belief exists” that the denomination violated federal law. Churches and other non-profit groups organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code are barred from endorsing or opposing candidates and political parties.

The UCC is generally considered the nation’s most liberal large Protestant body. Obama has been an active member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for more than two decades. Trinity is the UCC’s largest congregation.

In the IRS letter, Ramirez said the agency’s concerns “are based on articles posted on several websites” that described Obama’s June 23 appearance at the UCC’s biennial General Synod meeting in Hartford, Conn. The senator — by then an announced Democratic candidate for president — spoke to about 10,000 church members, according to the denomination and news accounts.

But UCC officials said they took pains to ensure that the speech was not perceived as a campaign event or an endorsement of the candidate.

Obama was invited “as one of 60 diverse speakers representing the arts, media, academia, science, technology, business and government. Each was asked to reflect on the intersection of their faith and their respective vocations or fields of expertise,” a UCC news release said. It also said church officials invited Obama as a church member rather than in his capacity as a candidate and said they asked him to speak a year before he declared his intention to run for higher office.

“The United Church of Christ took great care to ensure that Sen. Obama’s appearance before the … General Synod met appropriate legal and moral standards,” UCC General Minister John Thomas said in the news release. “We are confident that the IRS investigation will confirm that no laws were violated.”

Prior to the speech, a church official told the crowd that the appearance was not intended to be a campaign event and that campaign-related material and other forms of electioneering would not be allowed inside the event venue.

The IRS letter claimed that “40 Obama volunteers staffed campaign tables outside” the Hartford Civic Center, where the event was held. But church officials said they barred any campaigning inside the venue.

Thomas said that, while he believes the investigation will ultimately acquit the denomination, he nonetheless is concerned about its effect.

“The very fact of” the investigation’s existence “is disturbing,” Thomas said. “When the invitation to an elected public official to speak to the national meeting of his own church family is called into question, it has a chilling effect on every religious community that seeks to encourage politicians and church members to thoughtfully relate their personal faith to their public responsibilities.”

IRS officials do not discuss such investigations with the press because tax information is private. But several ministries and local congregations have been warned and investigated in recent years for electioneering.

The agency is currently investigating Southern Baptist pastor Wiley Drake for using church letterhead and a church-sponsored radio show to endorse Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

Last year, the IRS ended an investigation without any sanctions against All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif. It had been under investigation for a guest sermon its former rector had given just before the 2004 presidential election. In it, he strongly criticized the war in Iraq but said he believed that both President Bush and his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, were good Christians.

IRS officials contended that the sermon amounted to an endorsement of Kerry over Bush. The church contested the charge. In a September letter to the congregation announcing that it was ending its investigation without penalty, IRS officials said they continued to believe the church had illegally intervened in the election.

All Saints’ legal defense ended up costing more than $200,000, according to church leaders. Anticipating a similar financial burden for the UCC, Thomas sent an appeal Feb. 27 to church members asking them to donate to a special legal-defense fund.

“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 defense, we are told, could approach or exceed six figures,” Thomas wrote. “This is troubling news.”

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