Earlier this year, 31 Ohio pastors called down the most powerful force they could find against two of their fellow church leaders in Columbus. No, it wasn't God--but close. In a complaint filed with the IRS, the pastors alleged that the Rev. Russell Johnson and the Rev. Rod Parsley crossed the line into advocacy over the past year by preaching on political topics, initiating a voter registration drive and associating with Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican who is now running for governor [blogged here and here]
Both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parsley are fighting back, arguing that they've done nothing wrong by speaking out on what they see as moral, not just political, issues. If the IRS agrees with their accusers, however, the World Harvest Church and the Fairfield Christian Church could lose their tax-exempt status. It would be unusual for the IRS to mete out this kind of punishment, but as gay marriage, abortion and the war in Iraq increasingly draw religious leaders into politics, such complaints may become more common.
Just a few weeks after the pastors filed their grievance, the IRS released a report on the outcome of 132 similar anonymous filings against nonprofit organizations during the course of the 2004 presidential campaign, 63 of which are churches. The allegations against the churches include: inviting candidates to speak, donating money to politicians, endorsing individual candidates and publishing voter guides. Some of the cases were thrown out immediately, but 37 of the 47 churches that were investigated further were deemed to have run afoul of the tax code [blogged here].