In a case that could have broad implications for church and secular taxexempt agencies, the United Church of Christ is challenging an Internal Revenue Service restriction dealing with publication of congressional voting records.
The IRS ruled last June that nonprofit organizations, without jeopardy to their tax status, may publish congressional voting records on a broad spectrum of issues only if the publication includes no comments or opinions as to how legislators should have voted.
The church's Washington-based Office for Church in Society argues that such a restriction on expression of opinion is an infringement of the agency's First Amendment rights.
The agency traditionally has issued report cards on members of Congress twice yearly so church nenbers can check legislators' voting records against "how you urged them to vote how they said they would vote and how we on this staff recommended they vote," according to an OCS report issued a year ago.
Under the IRS ruling issued last June, any statement of the sponsoring agency's stand on any of the reported votes would appear to jeopardize the groups' tax-exempt status. Since the new ruling has not been tested, its precise limits are not clear.
OCS therefore declined to publish the September voting report for fear it might threaten the tax exemption of the entire 1.8 million member church.
With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, OCS has taken the first step in a challenge to the new regulation -- a formal request that the IRS commissioner authorize the voting record that includes editorial comments, as the agency has published it in the past.
The ruling challenged by the church agency is a modification of a much stricter IRS ruling last May. That would have ended the tax-exempt status of hundreds of organizations, and responding in part to widespread protests, modified the ruling in June.
Under current regulations, groups that poll candidates, or publish voting records on a single issue on which the group's stand is established, also jeopardize tax-exempt status.