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IRS warns churches: no politics allowed

By DAVID KARP
Published September 15, 2004

TAMPA - The parking lot at First Baptist Church of College Hill was filling up when a worker began telling people to leave.

The political forum at the historically black church would not be taking place, he said. At the last minute, it was being moved to a public library.

Inside a cramped room, moderator Gerald White explained the switch. That afternoon, the pastor had received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service asking about political activity at the church, a stop for many Democrats running for office.

The Rev. Abraham Brown didn't want to hold another political event when the IRS was asking questions, White said.

Why had the IRS turned its attention to this fixture in Tampa's black community?

Both the IRS and Brown declined to comment. White said the letter sent by the IRS last month asked about a 2-year-old visit by then-gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno.

Experts say it's likely someone complained to the IRS about Reno's stop.

Across the nation, people are turning to the IRS to keep pastors from promoting political agendas. It is happening in a year when both presidential campaigns are increasingly using churches as a way to reach voters.

The Bush campaign has courted evangelical Christians, including asking for church mailing lists in some states. Democrat John Kerry has campaigned at black churches and invoked his faith in speeches. In July, Kerry's running mate stumped at a black church in Orlando.

As the political influence of churches grows, opponents are wielding the tax code as a weapon against them.

"It could have a chilling effect," said state Rep. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who is African-American. "I see it as a way to try to intimidate people, but I think it's not going to work."

In August, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe urged congregants at a black church in Miami to defeat President Bush. Two days later, Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported the church to the IRS.

The IRS prohibits churches from campaigning, unless they want to pay taxes as other political groups do.

The group has filed about 50 complaints against churches - from Jerry Falwell Ministries for endorsing Bush in July to a black church in Los Angeles, where former President Bill Clinton urged people to oppose the recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis.

"It is good for the country that religious organizations are not asked to be cogs in the wheel of any political party," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

Some think it's foolish to try to take politics out of religion.

"It's just a way of life," said Joyner, who grew up seeing politicians visit black churches. "Every historical movement in this country is rooted in black churches."

The tradition transcends party lines.

"Isn't President Bush visiting conservative evangelical churches?" asked Pastor Louis Murphy of the Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, which has invited politicians to speak. "We should be able to inform people on issues."

U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, has introduced a bill in Congress that would let churches endorse candidates. The bill could come up for a vote before the November election.

Opponents fear that would turn churches into arms of political parties, reshaping politics and cheapening religion.

Brown declined to discuss the issue, except to confirm that his church received the IRS inquiry.

"I don't want to shed any light on it until we get justice," Brown said.

The IRS wants to know about a June 2002 visit by Reno, who spoke during Sunday services and shook hands afterward when she was trying to unseat Gov. Jeb Bush. At Reno's side was Martin Sheen, the political activist who plays the president on the television show The West Wing.

Reno's former campaign manager, Mo Elleithee, questioned why the IRS would contact the church now.

"This does seem very curious to me," said Elleithee, who suggested the Republican administration was targeting the church.

The IRS declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

Political activists who attended the forum wondered why the IRS had questioned the College Hill church, but not Christian evangelical churches such as Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa.

Idlewild holds political forums and prints a candidate fact sheet that only mentions candidates with evangelical credentials who belong to Idlewild. The fact sheet says it's not meant to be an endorsement.

"What happened at Idlewild was an abuse of the system and what happened at Abe Brown's church was the system abusing people who were trying to participate in it," said Adam Elend, a political activist who attended a recent forum at Idlewild.

Pastor Reno Zunz of Idlewild could not be reached for comment.

Advocates for Christian churches say they are most often the target of scrutiny. Some of the IRS's high-profile cases have been against Falwell and Bob Jones University, a Christian college in Greenville, S.C.

"African-American churches will come up to the line much more than other churches," said Mathew Staver, president of the Liberty Council, a group that says it defends religious freedom and traditional family values. "They have done this historically without ramification."

Staver said it's "extremely rare" for the IRS to contact a church. It's even more unusual for the IRS to actually punish a church.

He said only one church has lost its tax exempt status. It bought an ad in USA Today opposing Clinton's election, he said.

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which used information from Times files.

WHA T CA N A CHURC H DO?

The IRS publishes an easy-to-read guide that explains the political limits on churches. Go to www.irs.gov and search for Publication 1828. Then see page 7.

[Last modified September 15, 2004, 01:08:22]


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