Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Haven't we met before?

Does this sound familiar?

The Internal Revenue Service has notified the United Church of Christ's national offices in Cleveland, Ohio, that the IRS has opened an investigation into U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's address at the UCC's 2007 General Synod as the church engaging in "political activities."

In the IRS letter dated Feb. 20, the IRS said it was initiating a church tax inquiry "because reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status."

The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, called the investigation "disturbing" but said the investigation would reveal that the church did nothing improper or illegal.

Obama, an active member of the United Church of Christ for more than 20 years, addressed the UCC's 50th anniversary General Synod in Hartford, Conn., on June 23, 2007, 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. The invitation to Obama was extended a year before he became a Democratic presidential candidate.

It should.

According to the Washington Post blog "The Trail," this may be the offensive language:

"I have a plan that would have already begun redeploying our troops with the goal of bringing all our combat brigades home by March 31st of next year" according to the text. He also said "our conscience cannot rest" until genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan is stopped and 12 million illegal immigrants get a chance to earn their citizenship.
But that is rankest speculation at this point, and has nothing to do with either the IRS letter to the UCC, or the laws banning political involvement by 501(c)3 organizations. The real issue is: who ordered this investigation? As we know from the All Saint's Episcopal case, almost anyone in the IRS can do that, now. So that's problem no. 1. Problem no. 2 is: what constitutes "improper speech" or, rather, "intervening in any political campaign for public office"? According to the IRS's website, it isn't clear that the General Synod violated the restrictions of its 501(c)3 status:

When a candidate is invited to speak at an organization event as a political candidate, the organization must take steps to ensure that:

It provides an equal opportunity to the political candidates seeking the same office,

It does not indicate any support of or opposition to the candidate (This should be stated explicitly when the candidate is introduced and in communications concerning the candidate’s attendance.), and

No political fundraising occurs.
According to the UCC News:

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.

In an introduction before Obama's speech, Thomas said Obama was invited as "one of ours" to provide reflections on "how personal faith can be lived out in the public square, how personal faith and piety is reflected in the life of public service."
Based on this alone, it's hard to see how this matter isn't another attempt to intimidate a "liberal" church. The only violation apparent on these facts is a failure to invite other candidates to speak. But it would be odd indeed if court rulings didn't provide grounds for distinguishing these facts, and find that the first requirement was not an absolute one upon which the determination of violation would solely rise and fall. Indeed, if it did, the UCC would never have invited Sen. Obama to speak, or would have rescinded the invitation when he announced his candidacy for President.

I have to point out that these exceptions are mentioned in the IRS letter to the UCC (pdf file, linked in the UCCNews article), although the language of the letter is a bit sloppy. After calling the prohibition on involvement in political campaigning an "absolute prohibition," it goes on to detail the exceptions to this "absolute" rule. It also notes that the investigation was prompted by information on the UCC website about Obama's speech at General Synod. There is, in other words, very likely very little "there" there. However, it is serious enough, and expensive enough, that the UCC is sending me (as a UCC member and pastor) an e-mail asking for donations to a legal fund that has been established just to respond to this investigation.

Frankly, this is money that should be used for church missions and to help people who need it; like, say, the people in Bilox, Mississippi. It's another black mark on the Bush Administration (albeit a small one) that money has to be spent for things like this.

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