So says the Miami Herald:
The IRS has notified a Liberty City church that it is under investigation for possibly engaging in political activity — putting its tax-exempt status into question.
The probe is related to an appearance last October by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and several black leaders, including U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The reason for the investigation, an IRS official wrote in a 10-page letter obtained by The Herald, is that “a reasonable belief exists that Friendship Missionary Baptist Church has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status as a church.”
The situation is murky:
It is not clear whose complaint triggered the IRS investigation, nor is it known if other churches are under investigation related to the 2004 campaign cycle.
An IRS spokesman could not be reached for comment. Federal law forbids the agency from speaking about an investigation or say if the letter even exists.
Meek, the statewide chairman of Kerry’s failed presidential campaign, said the complaints came from outsider groups that may specifically be targeting black churches. He said two other Miami-area churches received inquiry notices last year, but declined to name them or discuss the probes.
“I would like for these groups to show their face. What they’re doing is launching complaints against African-American churches in Florida, which is very unfortunate, and in some cases embarrassing for the institution,” Meek said.
Let me say upfront that I hold no brief for political endorsements from the pulpit. I think it’s corrosive of both political and religious freedoms.
And at the very least, if the IRS report is accurate, the pastor was pushing the envelope:
IRS officials wrote that their concerns were based on an Oct. 13 news report in a tax publication that reported Friendship hosted a “rally” on behalf of Kerry.
‘During the service, the church’s pastor . . . introduced Kerry as `the next president of the United States’ and told the crowd that ‘to bring our country out of despair, despondency and disgust, God has sent John Kerry,’ ” the report said.
An article published in The Herald on Oct. 22 quoted Smith as saying, “to bring our country out of despair, despondency and disgust, God has a John Kerry.”
Nothing the preacher did or said should affect the church’s tax-exempt status, Lewis said. “Everything he and the church did was in accord with the law.”
This all raises some questions for me. Is the IRS investigating other churches? Is there a way to find out, or to find details on which candidates they endorsed? Does this signal a trend, or is it a one-off? And does anyone have any idea what “tax publication” it was that carried a report on this rally?
Even more baffling is the involvement of Americans United For the Separation of Church and State, a group I normally agree with. They’ve filed several letters of complaint in the past few months against both conservative and liberal-leaning churches, including this one in Cincinnati. Again, I don’t have a philosophical problem with what AU are doing, but this is the first time they’ve focused on black congregations. So is this a sudden attack of even-handedness on Barry Lynn’s part, or is there more to the story?
Tell me what you know, and please, don’t be shy about letting me know if you hear of other congregations being investigated.
Update [2005-3-21 19:31:48 by pastordan]: Scratch one of those questions. The “tax publication” in question seems to be this post on the AU website.