National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: IRS Backs Off Probe Of Obama

Sen. Barack Obama’s religious denomination of choice, the progressive, 1.2-million-member United Church of Christ, announced yesterday that the Internal Revenue Service has backed away from its controversial scrutiny of the church body.

The IRS began a formal investigation of the denomination in February, suspicious that it was violating its tax-exempt status because it invited Obama to speak to 10,000 church members gathered for its biennial national synod in June 2007.

This classic form of selective IRS harassment, aimed at damaging the United Church of Christ explicitly because of its ties to Obama, is matched by this spring’s media rampage against Obama’s former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a long-standing and highly-respected UCC minister.

It is almost laughable that this witch hunt was launched against the UCC for a single incident, after the years and years of political organizing by the religious right churches dating back to the 1970s that have never been so scrutinized. Symptomatic of this extreme prejudice was the lack of media attention to the anti-Catholic rants of the pro-McCain Rev. John Hagee of Texas, compared to the heat taken by the Rev. Wright.

Rev. Hagee’s pathetic attempt to recant earlier this month, clearly under political pressure, was belied by his long career built on spewing hate-filled prejudice. But the media has given him a pass.    

It took an extraordinary effort by the UCC to end the IRS harassment and the negative publicity associated with it. The church scrambled to raise the funds to fight the charges legally and with a public relations offensive aimed at crying “foul” in a very public way.

But it was political pressure that played the key major role, and in this case it got a major boost from an unexpected source. Independent U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the powerful chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee, weighed in on behalf of the UCC in March. Among other things, his committee oversees the IRS.

Of course, Lieberman is no supporter of Obama’s presidential campaign. He’s backing the GOP’s assumed presidential nominee Sen. McCain, much to the consternation of his erstwhile Democratic allies.

But Lieberman, who was the Democratic Vice Presidential hopeful on the unsuccessful ticket with Al Gore in 2000, takes his Jewish faith very seriously, and matters of religious freedom mean a lot to him.

On March 14, Lieberman penned a strong letter to the IRS’ Acting Commissioner Linda Stiff. “Throughout my career in the Senate, I have supported strong and fair enforcement of our nation’s tax laws, including laws applicable to religious institutions,” Lieberman wrote. “But I am concerned about the chilling effect on legitimate activity by religious organizations that results from initiating a church tax inquiry without first satisfying the reasonableness standard, and I am further concerned by the lack of clear guidance in this area.”

Lieberman noted that “the UCC took significant precautions to ensure that Sen. Obama’s appearance at the synod satisfied all legal requirements.” For instance, he added, “UCC leaders told synod attendees on several occasions and in advance of Sen. Obama’s speech that the UCC had invited him before he launched his presidential campaign, and also that Sen. Obama was invited to speak on a topic of interest, rather than his candidacy. UCC leaders also directed attendees to refrain from bringing signs and campaign paraphernalia into the synod facility. Based on these precautions, I would expect that had the IRS contacted the UCC before sending its letter, the IRS’ concerns would have been addressed.”

In a letter to the UCC dated May 13, an IRS official found that all Sen. Lieberman cited was indeed the case, and conceded, “We have determined that the activity about which we had concern did not constitute an intervention or participation in a political campaign,” adding that the denomination will continue to qualify as tax-exempt. Just to be sure, however, the author noted that copies of two IRS publications were enclosed “that may assist you in maintaining future compliance.”

Naturally, there was no apology or offer of compensation for the grief, negative publicity and emergency funds required to fight this egregious injustice.

Welcome to the presidential campaign of 2008.

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