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IRS Investigation: A Test Of Church's Faith?

Commentary By DAVIDA FOY CRABTREE

March 02, 2008

What do Sen. Barack Obama, commentator Bill Moyers, actress Lynn Redgrave, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Charles Townes and novelist Marilynne Robinson have in common? All are members of the United Church of Christ, and all spoke to the UCC General Synod last June in Hartford. Now the presence of one of those speakers, Sen. Obama, has resulted in the Internal Revenue Service investigating the tax-exempt status of the denomination.

So what is going on here? As a condition for tax exemption, the IRS expects nonprofits to abstain from endorsing candidates for office. This we accept, and this we did. The United Church of Christ bent over backward to ensure that we did not violate the regulations.

Our purpose in inviting Sen. Obama in the spring of 2006 long before he was a candidate for the presidency was to ask him to address the connection between his Christian faith and his public service, to speak to us of the challenges for people of faith in the public square today. And he did so with eloquence. As a prominent member of our church, his was a natural invitation, just as the others were.

To avoid any hint of endorsement or promotion, our national officers and our denominational attorney established clear understandings with Sen. Obama's office in Washington. He readily agreed to all of them. We made it clear not only to his campaign staff but also to our own synod delegates and visitors that no advocacy or promotion of his candidacy would be permitted. Needless to say, we could not control the use of public sidewalks by representatives of any campaign. We are completely confident that we took every measure possible to observe both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Nevertheless, the IRS decided to investigate on the basis of a complaint submitted to the agency last August. All we know is what the letter says: "Our concerns are based on articles posted on several websites, including the church's, which state that United States Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama addressed nearly 10,000 church members gathered at the United Church of Christ's General Synod at the Hartford Civic Center on June 23, 2007. In addition, 40 Obama volunteers staffed campaign tables outside the center to promote his campaign."

Investigations like this can take years. We hope that will not be the case this time.

There are significant issues of government intrusion in the free exercise of religion wrapped up in this IRS inquiry. Such an inquiry has a potentially chilling effect on the engagement of communities of faith with public officials, as Mayor Eddie Perez has articulated so well. This is different than partisan electioneering, of course.

Not all Christian denominations seek to engage the public arena, but for the United Church of Christ, this is part of our DNA, going all the way back to our forebears in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It has been our teaching since our very beginnings that one cannot divide life into the sacred and the secular; that all of life is seamless.

Our members are expected to apply the faith to their work and daily life and are encouraged to enter the public arena as civil servants, political leaders and government officials. So our inviting a prominent UCC senator to speak about how his faith informs his public responsibility is in keeping with a long tradition of engaging personal faith and public life.

Any attempt by government through the IRS and other agencies to define what is appropriate religious practice must be resisted. For the United Church of Christ and similar denominations, our work on universal health care, the elimination of poverty and numerous other social justice issues is absolutely intrinsic to our faith practice. So we have to talk to political figures and we need them to talk to us, especially when they are members of our denomination.

The Internal Revenue Service has normatively been even-handed in its enforcement of these regulations. I believe the agency needs to revisit its process. A simple dialogue with our leaders would have established that the facts contradict the complaint. Instead, given the facts in this case, by issuing this letter the agency risks encumbering the free practice of religion.

It was Connecticut's great privilege to host the 50th anniversary UCC General Synod those five days last June. Almost 10,000 people convened in our capital city for an amazing experience of rich and deep spiritual and intellectual encounter with more than 60 gifted speakers and presenters.

The joy of those days cannot be erased by this inquiry. Indeed, our commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas in both church and the public square is undiminished, and even stronger as a result of our time together in Hartford an icon of hospitality and the location of our best General Synod ever!

The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree is conference minister of the Connecticut Conference United Church of Christ in Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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