Thursday, October 26, 2006

Watchdog Group Accuses Churches of Political Action

The New York Times
Watchdog Group Accuses Churches of Political Action

A nonprofit group has filed a complaint asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the role that two churches may have played in the re-election campaign of Kansas’ attorney general.

The complaint by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan legal watchdog organization, cited a memorandum from the attorney general, Phill Kline, a Republican, directing members of his campaign staff to recruit churches to distribute campaign literature and serve as the sites for events.

“This is the top law enforcement official in the state who is encouraging everyone to break the law,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group. “He’s either abysmally unfamiliar with the law, or he’s deliberately violating it.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Kline, Sherriene Jones, did not return calls to her office.

In his memorandum, Mr. Kline identified two Topeka churches, the Light of the World Christian Center and the Wanamaker Woods Church of the Nazarene, which he said had participated in “lit drops” by handing out campaign literature. A woman who answered the telephone at Wanamaker Woods Church said the church had no comment.

The Rev. Greg Varney, pastor of Light of the World Christian Center, issued a statement saying that Mr. Kline had preached at the church on July 9, but insisting that no illegal activity had occurred. “At no time here at our church did Phill bring up politics, re-election or campaign contributions,” the statement said.

Mark W. Everson, the commissioner of the I.R.S., has repeatedly warned that the agency will crack down on religious organizations that violate laws barring charities of any type from involvement in partisan political activities.

This election cycle, additional accusations of such violations have been made against religious organizations in California, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio.

Whether the I.R.S. has responded to those complaints is unknown; the agency is barred by law from disclosing its investigations.

All Saints Church, an Episcopal congregation in Pasadena, Calif., has said it was under investigation, but no other church named in complaints that have become public has acknowledged an I.R.S. inquiry.

Despite a report last year by the Treasury Department’s inspector general that concluded political considerations had played no role in the I.R.S.’s selection of nonprofit groups for review, the agency’s silence regarding its investigations has led to accusations of political bias.

“From what we know, the I.R.S. has gone after liberal organizations primarily, the N.A.A.C.P. and the liberal church in California,” Ms. Sloan said, referring to the inquiry into All Saints Church. An I.R.S. investigation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was closed with no finding of wrongdoing.

“Clearly, there are violations on the conservative side, and no action appears to be taken.” Ms. Sloan said. “If they’re being even-handed,” she added, “I certainly can’t tell.”

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington also filed a complaint with the I.R.S. last week against the Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park, Minn., accusing its senior pastor of violating the law by openly stating his support for a Congressional candidate.

“We can’t publicly endorse as a church, and would not for any candidate,” the senior pastor, the Rev. Mac Hammond, told his congregation during a service on Oct. 14 as he introduced Michele Bachmann, a Republican state senator who is running for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. “But I can tell you personally that I’m going to vote for Michele Bachmann,” he said.

During her remarks that followed, Ms. Bachmann said that she had been called by God to run for the House seat after three days of fasting and praying with her husband.

The Star Tribune in Minneapolis later reported that Mr. Hammond could not vote for Ms. Bachmann because he does not live in her district.

Mr. Hammond did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The Star Tribune quoted Mr. Hammond as saying he had “learned my lesson.”