Mainline/progressive churches sic IRS on fundies...
by KTinOhio, Mon Jan 16, 2006 at 09:32:59 AM EST
Churches could face IRS probe
Pastors Parsley, Johnson exploited pulpits to play politics, ministers' complaint alleges
Monday, January 16, 2006
Mike Harden and Joe Hallett
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
More than 30 local pastors last night officially accused two evangelical megachurches of illegal political activities.
In a rare and potentially explosive action, the moderate ministers signed a complaint asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate World Harvest Church of Columbus and Fairfield Christian Church of Lancaster and determine if their tax-exempt status should be revoked.
The grievance claims that the Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church and the Rev. Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church improperly used their churches and affiliated entities -- the Center for Moral Clarity, Ohio Restoration Project and Reformation Ohio -- for partisan politics, including supporting the Republican gubernatorial candidacy of Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.
The complaint asks the IRS to seek a court injunction "if these churches' flagrant political campaign activities do not cease immediately." It was signed by 31 pastors from nine denominations during a meeting last night at the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus and was to be faxed late last night to IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson.
"For me, it's church and state, not church in state and I really feel there are some churches in central Ohio crossing that line," said Eric Williams, senior pastor of the host church. "The law allows church involvement in issues. This goes beyond issue-involvement to partisan politics and we're simply asking the IRS to uphold the law."
Williams and the other signers stressed that they were acting individually and not on behalf of their congregations, whose affiliations include: The American Baptist Churches/USA; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Episcopal Church in the USA; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Judaism; the United Church of Christ; the United Methodist Church; Presbyterian Church, USA; and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The complaint makes three main allegations:
That church-sponsored events conducted by Parsley and Johnson have showcased a single gubernatorial candidate -- Blackwell.
That Parsley and Johnson have launched a "partisan-oriented" voter-registration campaign "with the goal of registering 400,000 voters to support Blackwell's candidacy."
That Parsley and Johnson have been behind efforts to distribute "biased voter education" materials aimed at solidifying voter support for Blackwell.
Representatives of the targeted churches have denied the accusations, decrying the "unholy alliance" between "the religious left and the secular left" against "people of faith." News flash: We ARE people of faith, are we're tired of seeing you guys hog the spotlight while breaking the law.
The IRS complaint, launched by members of mainline Judeo-Christian denominations, represents a deepening concern that leaders of the evangelical religious right are mounting an assault on the separation of church and state.
John Green, a University of Akron authority on religion and politics, said the complaint is extraordinary because it was filed by pastors rather than watchdog groups that routinely monitor church and state issues.
"This complaint is detailed and complex enough that I think the IRS is going to say, `We better look into this,' " said Green, author of Religion and the Culture Wars.
Marcus Owens, the Washington-based tax attorney who helped the clergy fraft the IRS petition, also represents All Saints Episcopal Church of Pasadena, California. All Saints is under investigation by the IRS for a sermon opposing the Iraq war delivered before the 2004 election.
[Scroll about a quarter of the way down for details on the All Saints IRS situation.]
I haven't been able to confirm if my church (First Community Church; affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ) is represented on the petition, but I would be very surprised if it isn't. I know we have been having discussions with other mainline/progressive churches over the past few months.
It's about time someone took on the political arm of the Religious Right, and I'm pleased that the action was initiated by the religious community itself. If the fundamentalist churches want to be political organizations, they shouldn't get the tax exemption reserved for churches that do not engage in partisan politics.
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