Ohio Churches' Political Activities Challenged
Clergy Members Are Pressing the IRS to Investigate Whether Partisan Support Violated Tax-Exempt Status

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."

Among the project's objectives is to recruit "Patriot Pastors" to become politically active in their counties and their congressional districts, according to the organization's Web site. Each should be ready to register voters "able to shine a light for Godly candidates in the 2006 election cycle."

The January complaint seeking an IRS investigation -- signed by 31 Christian and Jewish clergy members -- charged that the churches and their affiliates improperly allowed Republican organizations to use their facilities and illegally promoted the candidacy of Blackwell, who won considerable backing from Ohio conservatives while leading a 2004 effort to ban same-sex marriage.

An April complaint, signed by 56 clergy members, said that Blackwell appeared more than two dozen times at meetings and rallies held by the churches, their leaders or affiliates. Other candidates were not invited or did not attend, according to the complaint.

In addition, the document said that Blackwell, in his fourth year as secretary of state, took three flights to events opposing same-sex marriage in 2004 aboard World Harvest Church's private plane. He reimbursed the church $1,000. The complaint also said Blackwell would be featured in "Ohio for Jesus" radio advertisements. World Harvest officials later confirmed that Blackwell once flew aboard the World Harvest plane to Texas, which the statement described as "not exactly a popular campaign stop for Ohio candidates." A church statement branded the complaint the work of "left-leaning clergy," a characterization the clergy members dispute.

Meanwhile, in a letter to the Columbus Dispatch, a World Harvest Church member called the criticism a "smear tactic" and dismissed media attention as "a desperate attempt to destroy men of God."

Representatives of the churches declined to comment. Executives and spokesmen have said in the past that World Harvest and Fairfield Christian and their partners are careful to honor federal law.

Blackwell, who also declined to be interviewed for this article, told an audience of conservative religious leaders: "You tell those 31 bullies that you aren't about to be whupped." He added that "political and social and cultural forces are trying to run God out of the public square."

IRS rules specify that charities that are granted a tax exemption because they serve the public may not "participate in or intervene in . . . any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."

Enforcement does not infringe on First Amendment rights to free speech, the Supreme Court has ruled, because the issue is not whether an organization's members can speak freely, but whether the government will subsidize its activities through a tax exemption.

"That's what our ancestors were trying to prevent, having too close a relationship between a government or a government official and a particular religious group so that the government policy and the activities of a particular religious group become intermingled," said Rabbi Harold J. Berman, who signed the complaints.

Describing himself as a centrist, he said his worries also apply to churches that endorse Democratic candidates and invite them into the pulpit. He said: "I think that's problematic, as well. That's something people shouldn't do."

The Columbus complainants point to IRS investigations of a liberal California church and the NAACP in asking whether the tax agency is being sufficiently aggressive in the Ohio case. Lerner, the IRS official, said she could not confirm or deny that the agency has begun an Ohio investigation.

In Pasadena, Calif., the IRS is examining the tax-exempt status of All Saints Church because its former pastor delivered a sermon that criticized Bush on the Iraq war and Republican conservatives on social policy two days before the 2004 election.

The NAACP recently said it would challenge in court an IRS threat to revoke its tax-exempt status. The case centers on a 2004 speech critical of Bush administration policies by Chairman Julian Bond. The group's president, Bruce S. Gordon, said he was concerned that the IRS audit "was motivated by politics."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company