Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Religious Leaders Seek IRS Inquiry of Two Ohio Churches


By Stephanie Strom
The New York Times

Monday 16 January 2006

A group of religious leaders has sent a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service requesting an investigation of two large churches in Ohio that they say are improperly campaigning on behalf of a conservative Republican running for governor.

In their complaint, the clergy members contend that the two Columbus-area churches, Fairfield Christian Church and the World Harvest Church, which were widely credited with getting out the Ohio vote for President Bush in 2004, have allowed their facilities to be used by Republican organizations, promoted the candidate, J. Kenneth Blackwell, among their members and otherwise violated prohibitions on political activity by tax-exempt groups.

They are asking the I.R.S. to examine whether the churches' tax exemptions should be revoked and are requesting that Mark W. Everson, the federal tax commissioner, seek an injunction to stop what they consider improper activities.

Both churches denied that any of their activities violated limitations on nonprofit political activity. "We endorse values, but not candidates," said the Rev. Russell Johnson, Fairfield's leader.

He said Mr. Blackwell had been featured at events because he was the only candidate who had spoken out strongly in favor of an amendment to the State Constitution banning same-sex marriage that passed last fall. Mr. Johnson noted that he was meeting with a Democratic candidate for Congress this week.

World Harvest Church and a recently formed affiliated organization, Reformation Ohio, issued a statement saying their voter registration efforts have been conducted in diverse neighborhoods and that they were committed to full compliance with all applicable federal laws.

But the leaders who supported the complaint said that the two churches had gone too far. "I have become very concerned about how it could be that churches were becoming almost an extension of a political party," said the Rev. F. Allan Debelak, the minister of a Lutheran church in the Columbus area and a signer of the complaint. "They have been giving what seems to be an endorsement, even if they never used the word, an endorsement of Ken Blackwell."

Thirty-one clergy members representing a variety of Christian and Jewish denominations signed the complaint, which was shown to the news media on Sunday. Rabbi Harold J. Berman said he had signed because he was concerned that the line between church and state was becoming blurred. "I think government is clearly impaired when churches get too actively involved in government," he said, "and I think religion gets impaired when government acts in religious affairs."

After a series of forums on faith and values at North Congregational Church in Columbus, a group of moderate Christians, constitutional scholars and clergy began collecting examples last fall of activities by Fairfield and World Harvest to support a complaint to the tax authorities. They stepped up their efforts after The Los Angeles Times reported that All Saints Church, a large liberal Episcopal church in Pasadena, Calif., was under investigation for its political activities.

The I.R.S. told All Saints that a guest sermon on Oct. 31, 2004, by a former pastor might have jeopardized its tax exemption. In the sermon, the pastor imagined a debate between Jesus Christ, President Bush and John Kerry, and it criticized the Iraq war.

The church said that the sermon in no way violated I.R.S. boundaries.

World Harvest and Fairfield Christian frequently note the prohibitions on political activity and say they are careful not to violate them. Each church has created separate entities whose goals are to increase political participation among Christians and to encourage them to vote, but those groups are also subject to constraints on political activity.

The complaint questions, for example, how the Ohio Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization led by Mr. Johnson, Fairfield's leader, obtained charitable status when among its stated purposes are to support and promote legislation. The group has said its goal is to create an army of "Patriot Pastors" to help increase the participation of church members in this year's statewide elections.

Reformation Ohio, which was started by Rod Parsley, pastor at World Harvest, is a church, according to its registration with the Ohio secretary of state. Its goal is to win 100,000 converts, register 40,000 new voters and help the poor.

Those organizations and their affiliated churches have sponsored several improper events, the complaint says. For example, the Fairfield County Republican Party Central Committee met at Fairfield in March to fill a precinct vacancy. Churches are permitted to lease their facilities for political purposes so long as they charge market rates.

Carl Tatman, the committee chairman, said that it did not pay rent for the space. "The church was nice enough to volunteer the space as a donation," he said.

A month later, the Republican Club of Northwest Fairfield County held a fund-raiser at the church. Brian Sauer, its chairman, said the group paid a fee but he did not recall how much. "I want to make it clear that our club has no affiliation with any type of religious group," he said.

Mr. Blackwell has been the only candidate for governor at a number of events organized by the Ohio Restoration Project and Reformation Ohio, including a rally in front of the Statehouse in October.

The I.R.S. allows nonprofit groups to organize events featuring political candidates if all legally qualified candidates are invited. Spokesmen for one Democratic and two Republican candidates for the governor's office said they were invited but did not participate.

But Brian Flannery, a Democratic candidate, said he has never been invited to events organized by Fairfield Christian Church, the World Harvest Church or their affiliates.

It is not always enough, however, to invite all the candidates. According to a 2002 I.R.S. publication on election year issues, an "organization that invites two opposing candidates to speak at its events with the knowledge and expectation that one will not accept the invitation because of well-known opposing viewpoints may not be considered to have provided equal opportunity to all candidates."

The complaint notes Mr. Blackwell's appearance at more than eight events held by the churches or their affiliated organizations since August. And Mr. Blackwell is scheduled to be featured this spring in radio ads - "Ohio for Jesus" - paid for by the Ohio Restoration Project.

Mr. Parsley has been careful not to endorse anyone from his pulpit, which would clearly violate I.R.S. rules, but he has expressed his support for candidates in other locations. There have been widespread reports of the contributions he and his mother made to Mr. Blackwell's campaign, and shortly before the 2004 presidential election, he said in an interview with ABC News that he supported President Bush.

His church has also invited conservative Republicans like Ann Coulter and John Ashcroft to speak, and they have voiced support for Mr. Blackwell. In August, former Senator Zell Miller, a Democrat who has aligned himself with the conservative Christian movement, stood in World Harvest's pulpit at a Reformation Ohio meeting and told Mr. Blackwell, who was seated in the front pew, "You are the kind of leader this state - any state - needs."

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