No Foul Here: Obama’s Appearance At Church Event Doesn’t Violate Federal Tax Law

June 25th, 2007
By Barry W. Lynn
Church Politicking

Some people are questioning why Americans United has not asked the Internal Revenue Service to look into the appearance of Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) at the United Church of Christ (UCC) gathering in Hartford, Conn., over the weekend.

As I noted in a previous post, Americans United does not operate in knee-jerk fashion. Complaints to the IRS are not lodged on a whim. After close examination of Obama’s appearance at the UCC’s 50th anniversary convention, I find no evidence that a violation of the federal tax law against church electioneering occurred.

In introducing the senator, UCC President John Thomas noted that the invitation was issued “more than a year ago” and that Obama was asked to speak on the “relationship between piety and politics.” Obama was also invited due to the simple fact that he may be the most high-profile member of the UCC denomination in American public life right now.

As The New York Times noted in a June 24 article, the UCC invitation had been made “well before the senator declared his candidacy,” and church leaders at the event reiterated that the appearance was not an endorsement of Obama’s presidential run. Moreover, the article notes that church leaders asked attendees “not to bring any Obama campaign buttons or signs” into the convention center.

The IRS has stated repeatedly that not all candidate appearances before houses of worship or religious groups are a violation of the Internal Revenue Code. The Code allows these kinds of appearances as long as the candidate and the religious group do not promote the candidacy. Indeed, in a document issued in February 2006 and posted on its Web site, the IRS states that political candidates may be invited in their individual capacity, and that depending on the circumstances, such invitations can be granted “without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status.”

Obama’s appearance at the UCC gathering does not seem to warrant IRS action. Church leaders, including the president, reiterated that the invitation was issued well before Obama launched his presidential campaign and that he was invited to speak on a specific topic of interest, not to trumpet his candidacy. Event organizers took measures to ensure that Obama’s appearance did not take on the trappings of a campaign rally by asking attendees to refrain from bringing in “Obama for President” signs and other paraphernalia.

During his speech, Obama mentioned his presidential run. He shouldn’t have done so, and I am disappointed that he made the reference. But those remarks did not transform the event into a political endorsement.

What happened at the UCC gathering is a lot different than some of the cases AU has reported to the IRS in the past. In those instances, there was a clear intent to intervene in a partisan race. We’ve reported cases of pastors collecting money for candidates during Sunday services, churches hosting partisan rallies featuring entire slates of candidates and religious leaders specifically instructing their congregations on whom to vote for.

Candidates from both parties should refrain from attempting to use houses of worship and other religious groups as extensions of their campaigns. And religious groups and leaders should never issue statements expressing support for or opposition to candidates or collect money for them.  

Americans United this year has encouraged the IRS to look into potential violations of the federal tax law that bars churches from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. It is likely that as the campaign season progresses, our organization will have to do so again. But Obama’s appearance before the UCC gathering does not appear to run afoul of federal tax law.

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