IRS Clears Florida Church of Partisan Activity Accusation

An IRS investigation of a Florida church has found there was no partisan political activity when candidates attended and appeared at services during the 2004 election season. In late Dec. 2005 the IRS told Guy Lewis, the attorney for Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, that the case would be closed and resolved favorably for the church. The inquiry was prompted by an Oct. 13, 2004, request to the IRS by the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State (Americans United) to investigate an October 2004 appearance at a service by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). In a 10-page letter to the church, the IRS wrote, "a reasonable belief exists that [the church] engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status as a church." Included with the letter was a 21-question inquiry into the pastor's alleged endorsement of Kerry, coordination with the Kerry campaign, and solicitation of contributions. Federal tax law prohibits all 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns. According to the Internal Revenue Code, they may not "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of or opposition to any candidate for public office." The prohibition has been interpreted very broadly in order to prevent charities from using tax-deductible contributions for electioneering, which would result in a taxpayer subsidy for campaigns. The church defended its actions by explaining services are open to all, regardless of religious or partisan affiliation. The church did not invite Kerry to the Palm Sunday service, but "[B]ecause the church is in a highly accessible location for Liberty City citizens to gather conveniently, community leaders frequently attend Sunday services and ask to be recognized,'' according to letters from Lewis to IRS investigators last year. Lewis also pointed out that Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, a Republican, had made an appearance at the church just one week before Kerry's. Lewis told The Miami Herald, ''Friendship did nothing more or less than other churches do on a regular basis. They didn't go out and raise money for any candidate. The preacher never told his congregation how to vote, never told them to give money to any particular side, never allowed congregants to have an after-service rally. I'm glad the IRS rightfully looked at this and said this church was a church. They are not a political organization. They are not dedicated to promoting politics.'' The church has reduced their formal policy regarding candidate appearances to writing, which helped convince the IRS that there was no attempt to favor one candidate over another.
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