A June 23 appearance by Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ is now the subject of a formal complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service on August 2.
Portions of the redacted documents obtained by the website UCC Truths, a growing online gathering for dissenters from the church leadership’s rigid left-wing political orthodoxy, were published August 27. Those redacted documents have now been obtained by The American Spectator.
The complaint, addressed to Lois Lerner, the Director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service, formally asks the IRS to “investigate the United Church of Christ,” identified in the complaint as “a 501 (3) (c) non-profit religious entity” for violating “federal tax law banning political campaign intervention.” The redaction has blacked out the name of the filer.
The complaint alleges the UCC “violated every single point outlined in the IRS guidelines,” in sponsoring the Illinois Senator’s appearance at the church’s bi-annual national gathering, which this year was held in the Hartford Civic Center in the Connecticut capital. It charges:
* “The United Church of Christ selectively provided the convention facilities for Sen. Obama to speak in support of his campaign.”
* “The United Church of Christ and Sen. Obama referenced his candidacy before and during the speech.”
* “Clear and deliberate campaign activity occurred in connection with the [sic] Sen. Obama’s attendance and speech.”
Specifically the complaint references guidelines that an individual addressing the church does so “only in a non-candidate capacity,” that the individual makes no “mention of his or her candidacy or the election,” and that “no campaign activity occurs in connection with the candidate’s attendance.” The complaint also cites a guideline that prohibits a church from mentioning an individual’s political candidacy or the upcoming election in “the communications announcing the candidate’s attendance at the event.” Both a video and a transcript of Obama’s speech are available on the UCC website and apparently will be present throughout the election.
The complaint is replete with citations and links directly to both the IRS guidelines themselves as well as the transcript of Obama’s speech as presented on the UCC website. Also linked are communications from the UCC in the run-up to the event that focus on Obama’s role not as a Senator but in his capacity as a presidential candidate.
Included with the complaint are photographs of tables set up by campaign volunteers for Obama at the entrance to the Civic Center. The tables are decorated with Obama campaign signs and literature. To further back up the charge of an IRS violation, the complaint links to stories covering the General Synod that were aired by New Haven’s news channel WTNH-TV and written in Christian Century magazine. The news stories described Obama’s UCC-sponsored appearance as a “political convention” and “political rally.”
Now, as the comedienne Joan Rivers liked to say, “Can we talk???” This exact possibility was bearing down on both Obama and the church hierarchy with all the subtlety of a B-52 over Baghdad from the moment Obama announced his presidential candidacy. A UCC member, the Senator had already accepted the church’s invitation to speak, according to the church leadership, well before he changed his mind and entered the race for the White House. At that moment Obama and the UCC had two viable options: cancel Obama’s appearance entirely, or have him appear but talk about something other than his presidential campaign. Effectively thumbing their noses at the IRS, neither option was taken.
AT THE TIME OF THIS INCIDENT I predicted in this space that Obama’s in-your-face decision would doubtless run the risk of just this sort of complaint being filed. As a (politically dissenting) member of the UCC myself, it seemed obvious that drawing the attention of the IRS through a filed complaint would be the inevitable result of mixing a rookie candidate with an arrogant church leadership determined to shut out all dissent. Now, rank-and-file members must endure the public relations black eye of an IRS investigation — and the legal costs to fight it — along with the accompanying threat of the denomination losing its tax-exempt status.
The irony is that IRS complaints of this nature have been lovingly crafted into a science by left-wing activist — and UCC minister — Barry Lynn, the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Lynn, quite famously, has made much of his tangles with conservative Christians, filing numerous IRS complaints designed to effectively shut down conservative religious activists such as the late Jerry Falwell. The goal, and a very serious goal it is, is to remove the tax-exempt status that the IRS gives to churches.
With the news of the filing of this complaint, both Lynn’s previous actions and his language are turning around to take a bite out of both Obama and the UCC, Lynn’s own denomination. “Falwell is thumbing his nose at the IRS,” Lynn said in September of 2004 as the Bush-Kerry race was heating up. Falwell, Lynn said, “must not be permitted to use a tax-exempt ministry to engage in partisan politics. The vast majority of America’s institutions play by the rules. He should too.” When charges arose that this time it was the liberal UCC and Obama which ran the risk of an IRS complaint, Lynn dismissed the possibility
Strikingly, the language in a Lynn complaint to the IRS against Falwell is close to that in the complaint filed against the UCC.
Lynn complaint language: “I believe this is intervention in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate in clear violation of federal tax law. I urge you to take appropriate action to correct this abuse of law.”
UCC complaint language: “The evidence that the United Church of Christ violated IRS guidelines is clear and plain….I urge you to take action promptly to address this issue.”
IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING OBAMA’S appearance, Lynn was quick to issue a pass for his own church, saying neither Obama nor the UCC had “run afoul of federal tax law.” Obviously, the filing of an official complaint signals there is a different opinion about the issue, and unfortunately for UCC members it is their offering dollars that must now be used to fight the complaint. To make matters more interesting, Lynn has issued a public defense of the liberal Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who drew attention when he publicly endorsed Obama. Robinson, Lynn stressed of the Bishop who ignited controversy by becoming the first openly gay bishop in that denomination’s history, was doing so as an individual. He approvingly quotes Robinson as saying: “I will not be speaking about the campaign from the pulpit or at any church function. That is completely inappropriate.”
But allow Obama to speak “at any church function” and “from the pulpit” is precisely what UCC President John Thomas did. By refusing either to cancel Obama’s appearance as a candidate at the General Synod (“any church function”) or to insist that Obama refrain from discussing his campaign, Thomas did what Lynn praises Robinson for not doing. As the complaint against the UCC also specifically says, the UCC-owned website, clearly an Internet pulpit that is every bit as much church property as a physical pulpit, deliberately headlined a story from the Religion News Service trumpeting Obama’s speech to the UCC as Obama’s “first major address on faith and politics as presidential candidate.” There too, Lynn praised Robinson for not doing exactly this kind of thing.
As Lynn is the first to say, the results of this kind of complaint can indeed be serious. Lynn’s website cites his seemingly endless chase after Falwell as proof. After much televised back and forth with Falwell over whether the IRS had indeed punished the conservative religious leader and his church for their political activity, Lynn came across a May 1993 issue of a publication called the Exempt Organization Tax Review. In it he found this statement by Jerry Falwell: “The Old Time Gospel Hour…today announced that the IRS has revoked its tax exempt status for 1986 and 1987 for improper political activities….As a condition of reinstatement of Federal tax-exempt status, OTGH said it agreed to pay $50,000 in tax for two years and to change its organizational structure to ensure that no future political campaign intervention activities will occur.” In an August, 2004 joint appearance on Fox News Live, with Lynn waving the report on air, Falwell angrily put his experience this way: “We went through four and a half years of audits and our attorneys and the IRS attorneys agreed that they would settle if we would pay $50,000 in taxes rather than a million dollars continuing legal fees.”
Predictably, a search of the UCC website for “IRS” reveals nothing about the IRS being asked to investigate the UCC. (Nor has Obama’s website commented on his role in bringing the attention of the IRS to his own denomination.) No wonder. What the search for “IRS” on the UCC site does retrieve is a March 2006 speech by UCC President Thomas complaining of the kind of tactics used by Barry Lynn. But surprise, surprise, the UCC’s Reverend Lynn is not even mentioned. No, the filing of an IRS complaint is not about shutting down conservatives, it is the other way around. And who is to blame for these kind of tactics? According to Thomas — are you ready? — filing IRS complaints against liberal churches “reeks of Karl Rove.”
Sure. And Sponge Bob is gay.
THIS IS ONE UCC MEMBER who believes that churches should be able to invite anybody they wish to address their members. Candidate or not. (And opening up UCC forums to the apparently terrifying idea of intellectual and political diversity by inviting non-liberals would surely help a denominational leadership seemingly determined to drive the church into oblivion.) But in considerable measure because of the activities of one of the UCC’s own ministers, we are where we are.
“Complaints to the IRS are not lodged on a whim,” the UCC’s Rev. Karl Rove — uh — Barry Lynn – sniffed when dismissing the importance of Obama’s UCC appearance.