Posted Feb. 28, 2008 – Officials with the United Church of Christ blasted the IRS Tuesday for launching an investigation into whether Sen. Barack Obama violated the denomination’s tax-exempt status by making a “political” appearance last year.
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"When the invitation to an elected public official to speak to the national meeting of his own church family is called into question, it has a chilling effect on every religious community," the Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the 1.2-million-member denomination, said in a statement. He went on to call the probe "disturbing."
Obama, who is a member of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, delivered a speech about faith and public life at the group’s national meeting shortly after he announced his candidacy for president. Leaders of the church, whose headquarters is in Cleveland, said they consulted with lawyers before issuing the invitation to ensure that they were complying with IRS rules. Thus, they said, they told everyone in the crowd that Obama’s talk was not related to politics and that they could not pass out any leaflets or other campaign-related material. But America’s tax police are not convinced.
A “reasonable belief exists” that Obama’s participation in the gathering violated federal tax-exempt requirements, IRS said in a statement. Part of the problem, the agency said, is that the Illinois addressed some 10,000 people, and Obama volunteers manned tables "outside the center to promote his campaign."
United Church of Christ spokesman J. Bennett Guess acknowledged that Obama supporters were outside of the event at the Hartford Civic Center but had been barred from entering the meeting. He also noted that Obama had been invited to speak even before he had announced his candidacy.
Non-profit entities, such as churches, are prohibited from endorsing candidates or supporting political campaigns. It is not against the law, however, for politicians to address non-profit groups, if politics is not discussed.
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