WASHINGTON—Scores of houses of worship nationwide are re-examining how they conduct get-out-the-vote programs and other election activities as the Internal Revenue Service investigates religious institutions for illegal campaign activity.
Churches grew more nervous when the IRS launched an investigation of the liberal All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif. after a former rector delivered a sermon that was critical of the Bush administration and the Iraq war shortly before the 2004 presidential election. The church last month said it would fight the IRS in court.
With congressional elections on Tuesday, several religious and voting rights groups are schooling churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions about what they can and cannot do politically under IRS regulations.
Religious institutions and other charitable organizations that violate the rules risk fines and losing their federal tax-exempt status. Fear of IRS investigations has made clergy across religious faiths reluctant to be politically active during this election cycle.
"I think there's a chill," said the Rev. Rick Scarborough, the president of Vision America, a politically active conservative Christian group that promotes civic involvement by the faithful. "I've had pastors come up and tell me their congregations have told them not to mention politics because it's illegal. It's not."
Scarborough said that Christian evangelical leaders, whom Republicans hoped to make part of an enduring GOP majority, have discussed increased IRS scrutiny during rallies and seminars.
To ease concern among its 185,000 members, the Interfaith Alliance, an 185,000-member organization that was formed "to challenge the radical religious right," conducted a conference call on the IRS regulations with ministers two weeks ago.
The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, which represents some 900 congregations across the country, held a similar call three weeks ago.
"It's become a very serious issue with congregations, especially African-American congregations," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., the pastor of Kansas City's St. James United Methodist Church. "There's mass paranoia about (churches) being politically involved."
Some Muslim religious leaders said they've had few, if any, discussions about political activity in mosques because they don't usually mount aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts.
"What we do is just generally encourage participation in the election process and stress the importance of people's presence in politics," said Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi, founder and director of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn, Mich., which has a large Arab-American population.
IRS officials say that religious institutions are under greater scrutiny because the agency is receiving more complaints about them from private citizens, watchdog groups, and other organizations.
During the 2004 election cycle, the IRS investigated 110 cases of alleged illegal political activity by churches, charities and nonprofit organizations. They substantiated illegal political activity in 64 of the cases; 48 involved churches.
So far this year, the agency has received 116 complaints, 50 of which were referred for further investigation. Of the 50, 11 involved churches. IRS officials say they expect to receive more complaints about churches before the Nov. 7 elections.
Houses of worship and charitable groups can run afoul of the IRS by violating a tax law that prohibits political intervention by tax-exempt organizations called 501(c)3s. That subsection of the Internal Revenue Code says that churches and organizations cannot "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office," according to the IRS Web site.
However, religious institutions and charities may conduct certain voter education activities, including presenting public forums and publishing nonpartisan voter education guides. Religious institutions may invite candidates to address their congregations as long as opposing candidates are invited, too.
The law allows churches, synagogues and other places of worship to take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election. But they must take care to avoid making their advocacy on the issue seem like advocacy for a given candidate, a sometimes murky distinction.
Several religious organizations and leaders have criticized the rules, saying they stifle religious free speech. They contend that individuals or organizations opposed to a particular religious group's ideology or participation in the political process use the law as a weapon by complaining to the IRS and triggering investigations.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State fired a warning shot last month when it sent 117,000 letters to pastors and churches in 11 states where the conservative Christian Coalition is politically active. The letter reminded the ministers about IRS regulations and warned that violating them could cost their churches their tax-exempt status.
Some clergy from liberal and African-American churches said the IRS focuses on their ministries and seems to let other Christian and evangelical groups do whatever they want.
"One would think the IRS is totally nonpartisan, but that is not the case," said former Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., the senior pastor of the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. The IRS investigated and cleared his church of political wrongdoing after Vice President Al Gore addressed the congregation during the 2000 presidential campaign.
Christian evangelical groups also complain about being unfairly investigated by the IRS.
"I think the evangelical community is being targeted," Scarborough said. "But there are too many moral issues that are making the church and pastors get involved and overcome the terror of the state, the threat of the IRS."
IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis said the IRS doesn't get involved in politics when it investigates alleged tax-code violators.
"There's a team of career employees that investigates these cases," she said. "Politics plays no role whatsoever."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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