Ohio Churches' Political Activities Challenged

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

In a challenge to the ethics of conservative Ohio religious leaders and the fairness of the Internal Revenue Service, a group of 56 clergy members contends that two churches have gone too far in supporting a Republican candidate for governor.

Two complaints filed with the tax agency say that the large Columbus area churches, active in President Bush's narrow Ohio win in 2004, violated their tax-exempt status by pushing the candidacy of J. Kenneth Blackwell, who is the secretary of state and the favored candidate of Ohio's religious right.

The clergy members said the churches improperly held political activities and allowed Republican organizations to use their facilities.

The goal of the challenge is "for these churches to stop acting like electioneering organizations," said the Rev. Eric Williams, pastor of North Congregational United Church of Christ. "I don't want to harm or demonize these churches. I want these churches to act legally."

When three months passed without public evidence that the IRS had acted on a January complaint, the clergy members filed a second document, expanding the allegations.

"You have flagrant intervention continuing and no indication of IRS activity," said Marcus Owens, a lawyer for the group and former director of the IRS office that regulates tax-exempt organizations. He considers the evidence of wrongdoing "pretty overwhelming" and suspects favoritism, which tax agency officials deny.

Lois Lerner, director of the agency's exempt organizations division, said: "The IRS is interested in enforcing the rules equally against all organizations regardless of whatever political stripe they are. Political appointees are not at all involved in deciding which cases we are going to do."

The role of the clergy, churches and affiliated institutions in elective politics is a sensitive issue in religious and political circles alike. The growing activism and influence of religious conservatives in recent years owes much to the mobilization of churches large and small. The Republican Party and the Bush White House have courted them.

Earlier this year, IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said improper political intervention had increased during the 2004 election cycle. He told a Cleveland audience that nearly 75 percent of 82 investigations resulted in a finding that churches or charities had engaged in prohibited political behavior.

A dozen of those cases involved religious leaders who used the pulpit to endorse or oppose a candidate.

In Ohio, a perennial battleground that is again coveted territory in this year's midterm elections, the targets of the tax complaint -- World Harvest Church and Fairfield Christian Church -- attribute the filing to philosophical disagreements and partisan politics. One spokesman called it "a campaign of harassment" before the May 2 primary.

"Spiritual warfare," the Rev. Russell Johnson, Fairfield's pastor and chairman of the Ohio Restoration Project, said at a recent news conference. "There's still freedom of speech in this country and it should apply to Christians, as well. People need to get out of their pews, out from behind stained-glass windows, and shine a light for what is good and right."

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