IRS investigates Obama’s church

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has begun an investigation into the tax-exempt status of the United Church of Christ, the church that Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) attends, over a speech Obama delivered at the UCC's 2007 General Synod in Hartford, CT last June.

According to a copy of an IRS letter that the church has received, the agency is launching the inquiry "because reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status," the Washington Post reports.

The IRS indicated it is concerned about articles published on the church's Web site and also that Obama volunteers reportedly had staffed campaign tables "outside the center to promote the campaign." Obama denounced the Iraq war in his speech and promised to pass a universal health care plan in his first term as president, the Post reports. The text of the speech is published on the church's Web site.

Tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from participating in any political campaign, on behalf of any candidate, including the publication or distribution of material.

A Washington DC law firm, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, has agreed to represent the church on a pro bono basis. Former Solicitor General and WilmerHale partner Seth P. Waxman, who will lead the firm's team of attorneys, said he was "confident that when the IRS learns all the relevant facts it will conclude that the General Synod of the United Church of Christ did not come close to conducting political campaign activity at its 2007 gathering," law.com reports.

"The IRS must proceed with great care and sensitivity to the First Amendment when it initiates an investigation in reaction to a speech at a religious event," Waxman added. "When it learns that there is no basis to proceed, it must announce that conclusion quickly and clearly."

WilmerHale will not charge for the attorneys' time, and the church's general minister and president, the Reverend John H. Thomas, expressed the church's gratitude to the law firm. But the UCC synod expects there will be significant other expenses associated with their defense and have created a "UCC Defense Fund," law.com reports.

The IRS has granted the UCC a three-week extension to respond to the agency's inquiry of Obama's speech. The deadline is now set for March 27.

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