NEW YORK The IRS is investigating the United Church of Christ over a speech Sen. Barack Obama gave at its national meeting last year after he became a candidate for president, the denomination said yesterday.
Obama, an Illinois Democrat, belongs to the 1.2 million-member Protestant group through his Chicago congregation.
In a letter the Cleveland-based denomination received Feb. 25, the IRS said “reasonable belief exists” that the circumstances surrounding the speech violated restrictions on political activity for tax-exempt organizations. The denomination has denied any wrongdoing.
Obama, a member of Trinity United Church of Christ, spoke about faith and public life at the denomination’s June 2007 General Synod in Hartford, Conn.
The IRS said in the letter that it was concerned about articles posted on the church’s Web site and on other sites stating that Obama had addressed nearly 10,000 people at the event. The agency also said Obama volunteers had staffed campaign tables “outside the center to promote his campaign.”
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a spokesman for the denomination, said a group of Obama volunteers was outside the Hartford Civic Center, where the event took place, but that they were told they could not enter the meeting.
The UCC had invited Obama to speak a year before he announced he was running for president because of his involvement in the denomination, Guess said.
Church leaders consulted with lawyers before the event on following IRS rules. Before Obama spoke, a top church official told the crowd that the senator’s talk was not a campaign-related event and that no leaflets or other signs of political support would be allowed.
Nonprofits are barred from endorsing candidates or providing support for campaigns, although groups are allowed to invite candidates to address them and many do so. Guess said no other presidential candidates were invited because Obama was the only one active in the UCC.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the denomination, called the inquiry “disturbing.”
“When the invitation to an elected public official to speak to the national meeting of his own church family is called into question, it has a chilling effect on every religious community,” Thomas said in a statement.
Amy Brundage, an Obama spokeswoman, insisted the speech was not a campaign event. In the address, Obama spoke about his personal spiritual journey and had said that faith had been misused in the past to divide Americans, partly because of the Christian right.
The IRS has stepped up its monitoring of the political activity of nonprofit groups during the 2008 election. It is more common for individual congregations to be targeted, not entire denominations, but very large ministries have been investigated in the past.
The inquiries can take years. Punishments can range from a financial penalty to loss of tax-exempt status an outcome that church attorneys call the “death penalty” for nonprofits.
The IRS does not comment on investigations because tax information is confidential.
J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which defends religious groups against government interference, called the timing of the investigation “peculiar.” But he said he generally has found the IRS to be nonpartisan.
“They have not gone after the left or the right or one party over another,” Walker said. “Both sides have accused the service of doing that, but my impression is that they’ve done a pretty good job being nonpartisan.”