Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I.-Conn., has written a letter to the Internal Revenue Service asking for an explanation of its investigation of a speech by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., at the United Church of Christ.
The IRS has been probing the church for a speech Obama delivered last June at its biennial General Synod meeting in Hartford, Conn., after he began his presidential campaign, and whether the speech violates the church's tax-exempt status. Obama is a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which has sparked controversy for remarks made by its recently retired pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama delivered another speech in Philadelphia this week discussing those comments.
In February, the IRS sent the UCC national office a letter saying it had formed a "reasonable belief" that the UCC had violated the Tax Code's ban on partisan electioneering by churches. Lieberman asked the IRS to explain the process by which it establishes the statutorily required "reasonable belief" of improper activity and to clarify its public guidance on the permissibility of candidate appearances at churches.
He noted that the IRS had not asked for information from the UCC before sending the February letter and said that, according to media reports, the UCC took significant precautions before the speech to ensure that Obama's appearance at the synod satisfied all the legal requirements.
UCC leaders told synod attendees that the UCC had invited Obama before he launched his presidential campaign, Lieberman noted, and he was invited to speak on a topic of interest and not his candidacy. They also told attendees to refrain from bringing signs and campaign paraphernalia to the facility.
Lieberman also noted that IRS Publication FS-2006-17, issued in February 2006, states that candidates may be invited to speak at churches in their individual capacity, and depending on the circumstances, such invitations can be granted "without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status." However, he contended that the IRS's advice was inadequate.
"This guidance implies that an individual who is well-known to be a candidate can become a 'non-candidate' for the purpose of a church appearance," Lieberman wrote. "But the guidance does not explain how such a candidate can be transformed into a non-candidate for purposes of the appearance. Therefore, I ask you [to] explain to me, and to the public, how this transformation occurs."
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