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The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio – September 8, 2008
Sep. 8–Three former Internal Revenue Service executives plan to file a complaint today against a coalition of Christian lawyers who they say are unethically encouraging pastors nationwide to talk about political candidates from the pulpit.
The complainants, including a former IRS commissioner, are challenging the Alliance Defense Fund for organizing Pulpit Freedom Sunday, set for Sept. 28. On that day, pastors have been asked to challenge IRS codes that bar tax-exempt charities such as churches from endorsing political candidates.
The Alliance Defense Fund, which champions conservative Christian causes, employs 40 attorneys and has trained 1,200 more.
“We believe the project of encouraging, of counseling, of assisting large numbers of churches to violate the tax law is a threat to the integrity of the tax system,” said Marcus Owens, who was director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division for 10 years.
A group of 40 central Ohio religious leaders also plans to file a complaint today asking the IRS to shut down Pulpit Freedom Sunday in advance and to investigate the Alliance Defense Fund to see whether it has engaged in political or illegal activities that would compromise its tax-exempt status.
The complaint also asks the IRS to deny tax deductions and benefits to donors and organizations that knowingly contributed to the pulpit initiative.
The pastors filing the complaint include the Rev. Bob Molsberry, conference minister of the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Rebecca Tollefson, executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches, and Rabbi Harold Berman of Congregation Tifereth Israel.
The former IRS executives, working for the Washington tax-law firm Caplin and Drysdale, are filing the complaint as a matter of principle, Owens said. The other complainants are Mortimer Caplin, who was IRS commissioner under President Kennedy, and Cono Namorato, who formerly directed the IRS’ Office of Professional Responsibility.
Alliance Defense Fund lawyers could be sanctioned with a broad range of penalties, from a warning to being barred from practice before the IRS, Owens said.
The Alliance Defense Fund, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., calls itself a “legal ministry.” Most of its cases involve the First Amendment rights of Christians, although it also litigates cases against abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
The group is trying to attract an IRS investigation at each participating church.
Congregations would then sue the IRS while being represented by the Alliance Defense Fund. The goal is to get the prohibition against political endorsements declared unconstitutional, said Erik Stanley, the group’s senior legal counsel.
About 35 churches had signed on as of last week, and they have been advised of the risks, he said.
Churches that violate IRS code could lose their tax-exempt status, but such a punishment is extremely rare. Since 1954, when federal law was changed to prohibit nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates, only one church has even lost its tax-exempt letter ruling, which simply recognizes the church as a nonprofit.
In that case, the Church at Pierce Creek in New York published full-page advertisements in USA Today opposing Bill Clinton for president in 1992. The IRS revoked the church’s letter ruling, but the church retained its tax exemption.
Unlike other nonprofits, churches do not need the letter under the tax code, and losing it does not affect their tax-exempt status. However, some churches request it from the IRS as a convenience in case anyone questions their nonprofit status.
Still, the IRS commonly audits churches after complaints, which is an expensive and time-consuming process for the congregations, Owens said. The agency can levy an excise tax for violations, which it prefers to do rather than revoke a tax exemption, he said.
Before 1954, it was commonplace for pastors to speak for or against candidates, Stanley said. He said the IRS is denying preachers’ right to free speech and free exercise of religion.
“Politicians didn’t get a free pass from moral scrutiny, and they shouldn’t get a free pass now,” he said. “The Bible has a lot to say about politicians, about certain candidates.”
The pastors filing the IRS complaint say they’re concerned about churches becoming extensions of political campaigns and worry that pastors or religions could gain political influence by supporting a winning candidate.
In 2006, largely the same group of pastors filed a complaint against the Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church and the Rev. Russell Johnson, then of Fairfield Christian Church. That complaint said the pastors should forfeit their tax-exempt status because they openly campaigned for Republican gubernatorial nominee J. Kenneth Blackwell.
An IRS spokesman in Ohio didn’t return calls last week seeking comment on the outcome of that complaint. A national spokesman for the agency said the IRS generally doesn’t comment on investigations.

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