COLUMBUS, Ohio — A group of religious leaders from nine denominations have accused two evangelical churches of improperly promoting an Ohio candidate for governor and want the Internal Revenue Service to investigate.
The 31 leaders from central Ohio met on Jan. 15 and signed a letter asking the IRS to determine if the churches should lose tax-exempt status because of their support for Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, one of three Republicans seeking the nomination.
The Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church in Columbus and the Rev. Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster improperly used their churches and affiliated entities for partisan politics, the complaint to the IRS says.
"If they don't want to be a tax-exempt organization, they can go and do and say whatever they want," Rabbi Harold Berman of Temple Tifereth Israel in Columbus said on Jan. 16. "But if you do want to take advantage of the tax benefits that are granted to churches and synagogues, then I think you need to follow the rules."
The two churches defended their actions, saying their efforts were not politically motivated.
A statement from World Harvest Church on Jan. 16 called the ministers bringing the complaint "left-leaning" and said they had "what appears to be a political agenda."
"Had they come to us directly, as people of faith are instructed to do in Scripture, they could have saved themselves a lot of time and embarrassment," the World Harvest statement read.
The Christian and Jewish clergy who brought the complaint said they were acting individually and not on behalf of their congregations.
Meanwhile on Jan. 17, Blackwell said the clergy who had complained to the IRS were trying to unfairly pressure the churches.
"You tell those 31 bullies that you aren't about to be whupped," Blackwell told a Jan. 17 luncheon attended by 450 religious leaders. The secretary of state said that "political and social and cultural forces are trying to run God out of the public square."
Blackwell was the only candidate for governor invited to address the event sponsored by the Ohio Restoration Project, led by Johnson.
Johnson accused the complaining pastors of starting a "secular jihad against expressions of faith."
"We are not going away. We will not be intimidated," he said.
The complaint alleges that Blackwell was the only gubernatorial candidate showcased in church-sponsored events conducted by Parsley and Johnson.
Blackwell said that was not true because Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, declined an invitation to speak.
The complaint also alleges that the evangelists' voter-registration campaign was done to support Blackwell. The churches "have designated programs to ensure that their voter registration drives target only conservative Christians likely to support a Republican agenda," the complaint said.
"You have a number of churches and charities involved with a number of road trips for Mr. Blackwell, all of which seem to be aimed at gaining him visibility for his political campaign," former IRS supervisor Marcus Owens told The Columbus Dispatch.
Owens, a former director of the IRS tax-exempt division, helped the clergy draft the complaint.
Berman criticized Parsley for having Blackwell speak at a Statehouse rally in November.
"It's one thing to talk about values. It's another thing to stand there with a particular gubernatorial candidate and say, 'This is the person you should vote for because I as your pastor say that you should.'
"Now, people are going to say, 'Well, they didn't say that in so many words,' but I think they came very close, and I think somebody's going to have to determine whether they crossed that line."
Mark Youngkin, a spokesman for Parsley, disputed the voter-registration allegations in an e-mail to the Dispatch, saying the efforts were conducted "without regard to political affiliation."
Johnson told the newspaper that his church and its affiliate, the Ohio Restoration Project, do not support candidates.
"It's sad to see the religious left and the secular left forge an unholy alliance against people of faith," Johnson said. "We have invited people to pray, to serve and to engage, and candidly, we will not be intimidated or bullied by these folks."
Blackwell faces Attorney General Jim Petro and Auditor Betty Montgomery in the Republican primary. His campaign spokesman Gene Pierce declined comment.
The clergy who signed the complaint are affiliated with the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Judaism; the United Church of Christ; the United Methodist Church; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); and the Unitarian Universalist Association.