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.
This is an issue where the flames have been fanned by a group of conservative political operatives and those who simply dislike the United Church of Christ. (Note the comment on this conservative political website from the member of an anti-UCC website calling for the UCC to lose its tax exempt status.)
As UCNews reported today:
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.
"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."
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."
Thomas said the IRS's investigation implies that Obama, a UCC member, is not free to speak openly to fellow UCC members about his faith.
"The very fact of an IRS investigation, however, 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."
Don Clark, a Chicago attorney who serves as the UCC's national special counsel, said the IRS investigation will afford the UCC the opportunity to correct "inaccuracies and misperceptions."
You can read the text of the speech given by the senator at General Synod here.
I have, of course, endorsed Senator Obama. As I said last summer:
As a minister in the United Church of Christ, I trust deeply in the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state and my endorsement is therefore a personal one and does not reflect on the church I serve or my denomination. But as a citizen I believe that all Americans must engage in the political process as individuals for democracy to thrive. So I choose to add my voice today with millions of other Americans concerned about the direction of this nation.
Later, in response to questions, I added:
To keep these kinds of distinctions clear I refrain from any campaign work during work hours, the campaign knows only to call my private cell or home numbers, I do not discuss my involvement on campaigns with church members, and I would never promote my endorsement of a candidate from the pulpit during worship or during any other church related activity.
And I do not address issues related to the political campaign on the United Church News Blog that I edit. To do so would be improper. And so, I use my personal site to respond to these types of issues. Here my views are my own and do not reflect the UCC in a formal way.
This IRS investigation is clearly an effort to smear Senator Obama and his church. We have seen the IRS used as a tool by the administration to attempt to silence their critics. But the United Church of Christ has done nothing improper. A fair and just examination of the facts will show that.
The question is: Can Bush’s IRS be fair and just?