IRS Investigating United Church of Christ Over Obama Speech


The Internal Revenue Service is investigating whether a speech last summer by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama to a United Church of Christ national meeting violated rules for tax-exempt charities against partisan campaigning.

The IRS notified leaders at the UCC's national headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, it had "reasonable belief" the denomination "engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status as a church" during its 2007 General Synod.

A church-state watchdog group that has filed 11 complaints with the Internal Revenue Service about electioneering by religious institutions since January 2007 says it is not behind the UCC investigation.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State regularly warns religious leaders that tax code prohibits churches from endorsing candidates and has in the past reported alleged violations to the IRS. That includes the complaint prompting the current IRS investigation into pastor Wiley Drake, a former second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, for his endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

But AU said it had nothing to do with the church-tax inquiry into the UCC.

"We did not file a complaint with the IRS about the Obama appearance," AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a press release. "We looked into the situation and did not see a violation of IRS rules. We saw no evidence of UCC officials seeking to appear to endorse his candidacy."

John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, called the IRS investigation "disturbing" and said it implies that Obama, a member of a UCC-affiliated church for 23 years, is not free to speak to fellow church members about his faith. Thomas predicted the probe would find that UCC officials did nothing wrong.

"The United Church of Christ took great care to ensure that Senator Obama's appearance before the 50th anniversary General Synod met appropriate legal and moral standards," Thomas told United Church News. "We are confident that the IRS investigation will confirm that no laws were violated."

UCC officials said they invited Obama, a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, to address the national gathering of 10,000 UCC members a year before he began running for president. He was one of 60 speakers from vocations including the arts, media, academia, science, technology, business and government asked to reflect on the intersection of their faith and their respective fields.

In his June 23 speech, Obama called for "a politics of conscience" to reclaim a faith message that had been "hijacked" by the Religious Right.

Before Obama spoke, Associate General Minister Edith A. Guffey, who serves as administrator of the biennial General Synod, instructed delegates at the gathering in Hartford, Conn.

"Now we ask that you remember that we have invited him to be with us to talk about the intersection of faith and public life," Guffey said. "And as we talked about graciousness yesterday, part of that is remembering that we are a diverse church with many different perspectives and opinions. Senator Obama is here today as a member of our church, and that is the context we will welcome him and be excited to have him with us."

During Obama's introduction, Thomas said the invitation was in part "recognition that he is one of ours."

Guffey asked delegates, not to "bring in buttons, campaign signs, any of that."

"That really is not what we are about today," Guffey said.

One item of concern mentioned in the IRS letter was Internet reports that Obama volunteers staffed tables outside the center to promote his campaign.

Lynn, himself an ordained minister in the UCC, said the investigation is a clear reminder that the IRS is aggressively looking into allegations of political activity by tax-exempt groups. "Candidates love to take their campaigns into the church sanctuaries, but clergy should be very wary of allowing this to happen," he said. "Candidates have nothing to lose, but houses of worship do."

Two weeks ago AU commended the IRS for launching an investigation of Wiley Drake, pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif., who in August issued a press release on church letterhead endorsing Huckabee and reiterated that endorsement on his church-affiliated radio show.

Drake responded with his second call for supporters to engage in "imprecatory prayers"--curses from the Old Testament used to strike down an enemy--directed at Americans United and three of its staff members.

Will Hall, vice president for news services of the SBC Executive Committee and executive editor of Baptist Press, asked AU to correct its press release that described the office of second vice president as the SBC's "third highest post." Hall said the first and second vice presidents are "honorary titles" without "any duties assigned relating to leadership of the Convention."

AU Communications Director Joe Conn said in a Feb. 15 blog he saw no need for a correction.

"I can certainly understand why Brother Hall doesn't want to be too closely associated with Drake," Conn said. "Drake is a theocracy-minded zealot who sounds like he just jumped off a time machine from the Dark Ages…. But, in fact, Drake was elected second vice president of the denomination. That's a top position in the denomination, no matter what the duties of the job might be or how much it pays."

Conn said SBC messengers "knew Drake was a shrill and divisive figure, and they elected him anyway."

"Drake may be the crazy uncle in the SBC attic, Brother Hall, but he's your uncle, not mine," Conn continued. "Don't try to disown him."

A subsequent AU blog reported that the SBC constitution dictates that in event of death or disability to the president the vice presidents automatically succeed to the office in order of their selection. Bylaws call for presidential appointments to key committees to be in consultation with the first and second vice presidents. Minutes in the on-line 2007 SBC Annual record that Drake presided over a portion of the convention's proceedings last summer in San Antonio, Texas.

AU's Rob Boston declared Hall's claim the position is merely honorary "a crock."

"When he had this position, Drake was in a line of succession had there been deaths or incapacitations," Boston wrote. "He consulted with the president to make committee appointments. He could run the meeting if the president couldn't or chose not to. The position doesn't sound so powerless after all."

According to AU, Drake's Aug. 11 press release on church letterhead said: "I announce that I am going to personally endorse Mike Huckabee. I ask all my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters to consider getting behind Mike and helping him all you can."

Drake followed the letter by using an Internet radio show broadcast from his church to stump for Huckabee. "I believe Mike Huckabee is, indeed, a man that I can endorse," he said on "The Wiley Drake Show" Aug. 13. "As second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, I put out a press release to that effect."

According to World Net Daily, the Alliance Defense Fund is defending Drake during the IRS investigation.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Previous related story:

Obama Touts 'Politics of Conscience' at UCC Meeting

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Tags: Bob Allen, Church-State Separation, IRS, Taxes, United Church of Christ