Church, politics and the IRS

The Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C.

KAI RYSSDAL: The First Amendment notwithstanding, the Internal Revenue Service has gotten religion. And just in time for the fall elections. Last Friday the IRS demanded documents from a prominent liberal church. It's investigating some anti-war comments from the pulpit. Today, a church-state watchdog group sent letters to some congregations in swing states warning them about their tax-exempt status.

Nancy Marshall Genzer reports from Washington.


NANCY MARSHALL GENZER: The watchdog group Americans United for Church and State sent out 117,000 letters today to conservative churches in 11 states. The group's executive director, the Rev. Barry Lynn, says the letters carry an explicit warning for churches to avoid the sins of politics this election season or risk losing their tax-exempt status.
REV. BARRY LYNN:"Do not in any way endorse candidates from the pulpit. Do not pass out literature endorsing candidates, or you could be in major trouble with the Internal Revenue Service."

Lynn says the letters are a response to a campaign by the religious right to woo conservative churches in swing states. Liberal churches have been in the news lately. All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., got an IRS summons last week. The Rev. Ed Bacon told his congregation yesterday that the church did nothing wrong.

REV. ED BACON:"This entire case has been an intrusion — in fact, an attack upon this church's First Amendment rights to the exercise of freedom of religion and freedom of speech."

The speech that attracted the IRS's attention was an antiwar sermon at Bacon's church right before the 2004 presidential election. The IRS wouldn't comment on the All Saints investigation, but Steven Miller of the IRS did say:

STEVEN MILLER:"We call 'em as we see 'em and we are non partisan."

Miller noted that a conservative church lost its tax-exempt status after running full-page newspaper ads against Bill Clinton in 1992.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

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