WICHITA, Kan. — The pastor of a conservative Christian church being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service said the threat of losing its tax-exempt status will not stop the church from fighting abortion.
“We will continue regardless of what the IRS does,” said Rev. Mark Holick, pastor of Spirit One Christian Center. “We will continue to obey the Lord.”
Holick told reporters Aug. 16 that the church, which has about 150 members, is being investigated for political involvement simply because it speaks against abortion. He called the investigation a violation of the church’s First Amendment rights.
Under federal tax law, churches can discuss politics but can lose their tax-exempt status if they endorse candidates or parties.
A letter from the IRS released by the church showed the agency was specifically concerned about signs in front of the church that criticized Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Paul Morrison during their 2006 campaigns. The letter also noted Holick’s involvement in distributing voter guides with candidate endorsements outside various churches.
Other items of concern included a message sent by Holick on the church e-mail account regarding last year’s attorney general’s race between Morrison and then-attorney General Phill Kline and an article posted on the church Web site opposing Hillary Clinton’s election as president. The IRS also extensively questioned visits made by Kline to the church.
Holick’s comments were made during a news conference in front of abortion provider George Tiller’s clinic, one of the nation’s few remaining late-term abortion providers. Holick blamed Tiller and his supporters for using the IRS to go after the church.
“They are using it as a bullying tactic to silence the church, to silence freedom of speech,” Holick said.
Tiller did not respond to a message left at his clinic. But Julie Burkhart, a lobbyist for ProKanDo, a political action committee Tiller formed, said her group did not file the IRS complaint against the church.
“We have other people in this community who are concerned about the church overstepping its tax-exempt bounds,” she said. “We cannot take credit for that.”
Doug Ittner, an abortion-rights supporter affiliated with an informal group calling itself the Maggot Punks, told the Associated Press that he filed two complaints as a private citizen with the IRS regarding the church’s signs during the elections.
“It is just one more tool,” Ittner said of the IRS. “Might as well get the government to do our work for us, and Spirit One helps by breaking the law.”
The IRS did not immediately return a call for comment.
The church, which was formed in 1991, has responded to a lengthy questionnaire from the agency and now is facing an audit, Holick said. The agency wants to examine financial and accounting records. A meeting is planned between church officials and IRS agents.
During the tumultuous race for attorney general, Kline formulated a “church effort” to take full advantage of his support among conservative Christians. In an internal memo to his staff, Kline discussed political receptions held after services, directing his staff to get friendly pastors to invite “money people.” Someone leaked the memo to reporters.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State said during the elections that Kline’s campaign was leading churches and pastors onto dangerous legal ground, possibly jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
Holick said Kline preached at the church in 2003 and 2004, but his sermons were not political.
Kline did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Holick hosted a fundraiser for Kline at his home in October, an e-mail released by the church showed. He also participated in an effort distributing voter guides outside churches that highlighted anti-abortion candidates.
“In essence because I got involved politically outside the church, they are now investigating my church,” Holick said. “What they are saying is that as a Christian you can’t get involved politically.”
Months before November’s midterm elections, the IRS warned that it would be scrutinizing churches to make sure they do not violate their tax-exempt status. Both liberal and conservative groups have responded by lodging numerous complaints against churches.
Last year, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of the Wichita-based Operation Rescue West for prohibited political activity during the 2004 election. The group, now known as Operation Rescue, relinquished its charitable status and reorganized more than a year ago.