IRS investigating church over Obama speech

February 27, 2008 3:54:16 PM PST
The Internal Revenue Service is investigating the United Church of Christ because Barack Obama delivered a speech to its national meeting after launching his presidential campaign. The IRS is trying to determine if the denomination violated restrictions on political activity for tax-exempt groups.

The Obama campaign says the candidate took a break from political activities in Iowa and New Hampshire last summer to give a speech on the role of faith in the lives of public officials at the 50th anniversary convention of his own United Church of Christ in Connecticut. But, according to the IRS, the event may have violated enough IRS rules to warrant an investigation that may cost the church its tax-exempt status.

Politicians, at least Democrats in the Chicago area, spend a lot of time in churches, especially around election time, and most people take it in stride.

But Barack Obama's speech at a national meeting of his own United Church of Christ in Hartford, Connecticut, last summer, at the beginning of the presidential campaign, is sparking an Internal Revenue Service investigation that threatens the church's status as a tax-exempt institution because the church publicized the speech on its website, and 40 Obama volunteers showed to hand out political materials, prompting the IRS to send a letter to the church's Cleveland-based headquarters Tuesday, as Obama and Hillary Clinton were getting ready to debate in Cleveland.

"Tax-exempt organizations," the IRS wrote, "are prohibited from participating in any political campaign, on behalf of any candidate, including the publication or distribution of material. This is an absolute prohibition."

The Obama campaign says the volunteers came on their own, uninvited, and "Senator Obama spoke to his church's convention about his spiritual journey. This was not a campaign event."

Church officials claim they bent over backwards to make sure they were following the IRS guidelines.

"The timing does feel peculiar since we are in the midst of a campaign season. All the political activity took place outside our venue," said Rev. J. Bennett Guess, United Church of Christ.

By way of comparison, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, has defended raising money in church sanctuaries, saying there is nothing wrong with it. There is no indication the IRS investigated a fundraiser he held in a Dallas church last month. But, in 1996, then Vice President Al Gore attended a fundraiser at a Buddhist temple in California that eventually led to criminal convictions after it was determined the fundraisers had been untruthful about the source of the contributions.