WALL STREET JOURNAL
Obama Pastors’ Sermons May Violate Tax Laws
Famous Parishioner Disavows Himself From Partisan Tilt
By SUZANNE SATALINE
March 10, 2008; Page A1
On Christmas morning, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. compared presidential candidate Barack Obama’s impoverished childhood to Jesus Christ’s. “Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people,” he then trumpeted. “Hillary [Clinton] can never know that.”
Mr. Wright wasn’t at a convention or a campaign stop. He was standing at the pulpit before the mostly African-American congregation of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, where Sen. Obama has worshiped for more than 20 years.
Mr. Wright, who will be ending his 36-year tenure as the church’s senior pastor in June, has previously been criticized for comments deriding President George Bush and lauding Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Now Mr. Wright’s and his successor’s repeated enthusiastic promotion of their famous parishioner may be running afoul of federal tax law, which says churches can endanger their tax-exempt status by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
Sen. Obama’s campaign issued a statement saying that he has repeatedly stressed that personal attacks “have no place in this campaign or our politics, whether they’re offered from a platform at a rally or the pulpit of a church.” The statement also said he “does not think of the pastor of his church in political terms. Like a member of his family, there are things he says with which Senator Obama deeply disagrees.” Mr. Wright declined to comment.
Trinity’s national parent, the United Church of Christ, recently disclosed that it’s being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service for a speech Sen. Obama gave to 10,000 people at a church conference in June in Hartford, Conn., in which he mentioned his candidacy and parts of his platform, namely health-care reform.
Scholars and attorneys say that a growing number of congregations are delving into issue advocacy and partisan politics, a trend dating back to the 1980s, when the religious right enlisted churches to fight abortion. An increasing number of complaints to the IRS over church politicking have triggered agency probes into both liberal and conservative religious groups. A Baptist church in California has acknowledged it’s under IRS scrutiny after a watchdog group complained that the church backed Republican Mike Huckabee in his recently ended bid for the White House.
“There have never been more audits than in the last three or four years” involving churches, says Marcus Owens, an attorney who represents some congregations and is a former director of the IRS’s exempt-organizations division. But while the agency has issued dozens of warning letters aimed at halting advocacy for political candidates, it has only twice revoked a church’s tax-exempt status since the tax law was amended in 1954, a spokeswoman said.
Under the law that governs tax-exempt organizations, churches are allowed to support causes or ballot initiatives such as laws to ban same-sex marriage. They also can hold a candidates’ night for all office-seekers in a race. But according to guidance provided on the IRS’s Web site, churches are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
The prohibition is aimed at preventing government subsidies — in the form of tax breaks — from going to organizations that support political parties. Other types of nonprofits are permitted to engage in partisan political activity but have more limited tax protections. For instance, their financial supporters aren’t allowed to claim tax deductions for their donations.
With 6,000 members, Trinity is the largest United Church of Christ congregation. The church is centered in a poor Chicago neighborhood, near public housing and down the road from Cut Rate Food & Liquors, which posts a sign reading “No drug dealing.” A review by The Wall Street Journal of 13 sermons at Trinity seen live or through church-recorded DVDs since late December found nine instances of ministers at Trinity appearing to promote Sen. Obama’s candidacy.
From the Pulpit
Some of the sermons mentioned Sen. Clinton or her husband in unflattering ways. During that Christmas morning sermon, Mr. Wright declared that Hillary Clinton “ain’t had to work twice as hard just to get accepted by the rich white folk who run everything or to get a passing grade when you know you are smarter than that ‘C’ student sitting in the White House.” On Jan. 13, Mr. Wright told the Trinity congregation that some people say, “‘Hillary is married to Bill and Bill [has] been good to us.’” Mr. Wright continued, “No, he ain’t!” Sen. Clinton’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Ellen Aprill, an associate dean at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former adviser to the Treasury Department on matters including nonprofit tax law, says she believes those sermons are “clearly a violation. They’re naming names.”
Donald Tobin, an associate dean at Ohio State University law school, who formerly worked for the Justice Department on nonprofit tax matters, adds that nonprofits cannot make endorsements or engage in a “pattern and practice that is designed to support one candidate over another.” After being read sections of the Trinity sermons by the Journal, he said, “There does seem to be a pattern of attempting to tip the scales in a way for Barack Obama. And churches shouldn’t be doing that.”
Allusions to Candidate
In some instances, the church’s ministers alluded to Sen. Obama without naming him. During a Trinity sermon observed by a Journal reporter on March 2, the Rev. Otis Moss III, the pastor, preached, “There was a non-Babylonian, a young man who heard the word of God and said, ‘I have the audacity to hope!’ Now the whole nation says, ‘Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!’”
“Because that phrase is so identified with Barack Obama and because he is a member of the congregation, it’s possible that it could be interpreted as an implicit endorsement,” Ms. Aprill says. Mr. Moss didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Congregants are hearing more about politics during worship services than they did decades ago, scholars say. A 2006 poll of 3,000 churchgoers found that about a third of Roman Catholics and white evangelicals and 42% of black Protestants said politics and social issues had been discussed from the pulpit at least “once every month or two,” according to David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, who commissioned the survey for a book he is helping to write on churches’ civic life.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, says it has filed 13 complaints with the IRS in the past year over alleged church politicking. They include allegations that churches made endorsements from the pulpit or on church stationery for Sen. Obama or Mr. Huckabee, says Rob Boston, a spokesman. One of those complaints involves First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., which has acknowledged that it’s under federal investigation. The ministry endorsed Mr. Huckabee on its stationery and its Internet radio program, Americans United said.
The IRS won’t disclose how many congregations it is currently investigating. Last July, the agency reported that it was reviewing complaints involving 44 churches and 56 other nonprofits related to the 2006 election cycle and had, at that point, found 26 cases of improper political activity. The agency examined 110
cases during the 2004 elections, issuing 69 advisories, akin to warning letters, and revoked the tax-exempt status of five nonprofits, none of them churches.
Since Congress amended the tax law in 1954 to restrict campaign activity by nonprofits, only two churches have had their tax-exemptions revoked, according to the IRS. The most recent case involved Branch Ministries Inc., which ran a church in Binghamton, N.Y., and placed full-page ads in two newspapers in 1992 urging Christians not to vote for then-candidate Bill Clinton. The IRS decision was upheld on appeal.
Losing tax-exempt status would be a serious blow to any church. It likely would be subject to income taxes and not be able to solicit tax-deductible contributions. Any IRS investigation — even if it doesn’t lead to any action — can embroil a church in months, sometimes years, of costly legal battles.
Obama has repeatedly said two things throughout this campaign:
(1) That he was engaged in a new kind of politics, “The Politics of Hope”, which centers around “new rules” and “change”.
(2) That his inexperience as a candidate is mitigated by the coterie of advisors surrounding him, culled largely from Harvard, University of Chicago, and academia at large: no Washington “insiders” here, all “outsiders” bringing “change”.
Well, HillBuzz wonders how Obama maintains a “new kind of politics” when his advisors engage in backhanded shennanigans like the scandals that broke this week: NAFTAgate and Monstergate. Two different senior advisors (Goolsbee and Power), one economic and one foreign policy, said, within the span of a week, that Obama is only “playing politics” and telling voters what they want to hear now (about NAFTA and troop withdrawels in Afghanistan and Iraq), but intending to dishonor those promises if the Obama Nation makes it to Washington. He has no intention to keep his campaign promises for change, they insisted.
His senior advisors’ total and complete lack of judgement also makes HillBuzz wonder whose hands our government would fall into should the Obama Nation occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. One of the greatest shortcomings of the Bush Administration was the hubris of Rumsfeld, Rice, and Cheney, key advisors to George Dubya, who came to Washington promising change and a different kind of politics (in their case, “compassionate conservatism”, whatever that was supposed to be). Instead, Rumsfeld dusted off old war plans he dreamed of using for 8 years, Rice wholly ignored warnings of Al Queda plans because she knew better and wanted to focus on Russia, and Cheney channeled Burgess Meredith, channeling The Penguin, and apparently has plotted to take over Gotham City ever since. When your advisors have no idea how Washington works, and you have no idea how Washington works, and no one seems really concerned about the realities of governing, enormous mistakes are made.
Will America repeat all this? Fool us once, shame on Bush. Fool us twice, shame on us.
In the cases of Goolsbee and Power, the comments carried serious weight. Obama was trying to argue before the Ohio contest that he was more trustworthy than Clinton on fixing the flaws in NAFTA — and more trustworthy in general. Power’s “monster” comment cast doubt on his campaign’s contention that Clinton has been running the more personally negative campaign. Furthermore, steadfast opposition to the presence of American troops in Iraq is one of the chief points of contrast that has benefited Obama in his fight against Clinton. In recent days, news organizations for the first time have stepped up their scrutiny of Obama’s campaign, and the Goolsbee and Power flaps have provided plenty of fodder for this new attention.
CBS-2 Chicago took down its “Who Has Momentum Poll”. Thanks to all of you, Hillary Clinton won the poll with 63% of the vote, to Obama’s 37%. We at HillBuzz wanted Clinton to win with 70%, but we’ll take that 63%.
Just so you know, the Obamaniacs were also working that poll. And we still beat them by almost 2:1. Way to go, HillBuzz readers. Buzz, buzz, buzz.
(1) Sen. Barack Obama was among eight state officials and others consulted about who should be appointed to a state board that later became involved in what prosecutors describe as a fraud scheme, according to a memo from a Democratic official.
(2) The memo was discussed Monday at the trial of Antoin ”Big Tony” Rezko, a Chicago businessman who was a prominent contributor to Obama and Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Among other things, Rezko is on trial for allegedly plotting with board member Stuart Levine to split a bribe from a contractor.
(3) Prosecutors say Levine used his position on the health facilities planning board and a state pension board to pressure companies for payoffs. They say Rezko used political clout with Blagojevich to help Levine.
It has nothing to do with North Carolina, but got HillBuzz thinking. If Nutter, an African American mayor in a 45% African American city like Philadelphia, believe Hillary has a chance of winning his city, then HillBuzz thinks we should put a lot of effort into winning North Carolina.
Obama is not writing Pennsylvania off. Clinton can’t afford to write North Carolina off. There have to be a lot of people like Michael Nutter in North Carolina. If we mobilize them, and work hard, we will win.
Barack misses another opportunity. In February, he skipped a forum on Rebuilding New Orleans and last week he skipped Mississippi’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Hillary made the most of the event by delivering a 30 minute speech in Canton:
“The President did not respond to the needs of the people here in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana,” Clinton said. “We do not yet have the level of response and urgency that a national disaster, which turned into a national disgrace, deserves. I will do whatever I can to make up for lost time as your president.
“There will be one person in the White House that will be responsible every single day to give me a report about the progress we are making in rebuilding and getting people back in their homes, fixing the infrastructure and dealing with nsurance claims.”
She said she had worked with the state’s congressional delegation to secure funding to rebuild the area. She also said she voted for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico so the area could have more money to in turn make the coastline stronger.
Clinton also said she would work to make health care accessible to everyone, and would fight for the SCHIP program and for lower gas prices. She said she would work to bring the economic polices of her husband back to Washington.
It’s no wonder Obama is avoiding the Gulf Coast other than putting on blockbuster rallies where he can speak on his own terms. Near the University of Chicago, the Obama family mansion sits safely nestled on a finely manicured lot along a magnificent row of 2 and 3 storied brownstones.
A stark and disturbing scene exists within a 10 minute radius of Obama’s haven where the remnants of urban decay are rampant. Chicago is infamous for its failed public housing system. The buildings were too neglected to be saved. The city decided to tear down the projects brick by brick before there was adequate replacement. Thousands upon thousands of displaced poor people were pushed out. Some of the remaining projects exist as transitional living spaces until the City catches up. It is said that some of these buildings now hold 3 times the amount of people than originally intended. And outside churches are boarded-up, weeds push through concrete cracks, playgrounds are left broken and empty, liquor stores trump supermarkets, check cashing signs twinkle in mass and broken glass litter abandon parking lots.
In Obama’s own backyard exists a tragic story of decay, neglect and poor people.