Precinct 333

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

IRS Investigates Church That Hosted Kerry

The IRS is investigating Friendship Missionary Baptist Church for its political involvement in hosting a visit by John Kerry last year that took on the trappings of a political rally rather than a church service – and included words from the pastor that seemed to constitute an endorsement.

The IRS has notified a Liberty City church that it is under investigation for possibly engaging in political activity -- putting its tax-exempt status into question.

The probe is related to an appearance last October by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and several black leaders, including U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The reason for the investigation, an IRS official wrote in a 10-page letter obtained by The Herald, is that ``a reasonable belief exists that Friendship Missionary Baptist Church has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status as a church.''

Rev. Gaston Smith took a break from the revelry and worship of Palm Sunday services to inform the congregation about the inquiry. He said visits by political candidates are nothing new, and that the 75-year-old church did not violate U.S. tax code, as suggested in the letter. He has hired former U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis to defend the church in the inquiry.

''This is not about politics. It's about principles,'' Smith said. Silence fell over the congregation as he spoke.

The inquiry raises serious questions about whether the predominantly black church can keep its tax-exempt status. If it fails, members and contributors could not deduct tithes and other gifts, upon which churches heavily rely to operate.

Some have raised issues of racism about the investigation, which appears to also encompass other Florida churches that hosted Kerry in the run-up to the presidential election. There have been accusations that the investigation is politically motivated. Others insist that the service was business as usual for the church, and that they did nothing wrong. But was it? You can decide whether the line was crossed for yourself by looking at this CBS/AP article on the visit.

The Democratic presidential nominee attended two church services Sunday, instead of his usual one, worshipping first with Haitian Catholics and then with black Baptists, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton tied his election to the civil rights struggle.

"We have an unfinished march in this nation," Kerry said at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, as many congregants waved fans handed out by the campaign with his slogan, "Hope is on the way."

"Never again will a million African Americans be denied the right to exercise their vote in the United States of America," Kerry promised, referring to the disputed Florida recount in the 2000 presidential race. As he often does before black audiences, Kerry said he has a legal team that will aggressively respond to any allegations of disenfranchisement.

Black turnout is key to Kerry's plan for victory in Florida and elsewhere - less than 10 percent of black voters nationally supported George W. Bush in 2000. But Kerry's campaign says there have been efforts to turn religious blacks against him based on his support for abortion rights and civil unions for same-sex couples.

Jackson told worshippers their political concerns are issues that touch their everyday lives, not gay marriage.

"I see disturbing signs today that some of our churches have been confused by wolves in sheep's' clothing," Jackson said. "How did someone else put their agenda in the front of the line?"

"November 2, the power is in your hands, hands that once picked cotton," Jackson said.

Added Sharpton: "Everything we have fought for, marched for, gone to jail for — some died for — could be reversed if the wrong people are put on the Supreme Court."

Speakers avoided criticizing President George W. Bush by name, since they were in church, but he was indirectly vilified.

Former Congresswoman Carrie Meek said Kerry is "fighting against liars and demons. ... He challenges the man who walks with a jaunty step." She rocked her hips in an imitation of Bush's swagger as the congregation cheered and Kerry laughed from his high-backed seat behind the pulpit.

And lest one think that this is a bit of political payback from the administration, consider this October press release from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State -- not a Bush friendly organization by any stretch of the imagination.

A Miami church that hosted a rally on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry Oct. 10 should be investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United today asked the IRS to investigate the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, which hosted a Sunday service that became a rally featuring speeches by Kerry, former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton and other prominent Democrats.

During the service, the church's pastor, the Rev. Gaston E. Smith, introduced Kerry as "the next president of the United States" and told the crowd, "To bring our country out of despair, despondency and disgust, God has a John Kerry."

Sharpton also praised Kerry and attacked President George W. Bush. He criticized the Florida recount of 2000, promising that voters in the state would deliver a "big payback" to the president on Nov. 2.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said the church-based partisan rally seems to be a clear violation of federal tax law that bars houses of worship and other 501(c)(3) tax-exempt groups from intervening in political campaigns.

"Federal tax law is clear on this matter," Lynn said. "Houses of worship may not endorse candidates for public office, and they certainly may not host huge partisan rallies. This was way over the top."

Concluded Lynn, "I urge the IRS to investigate this church's activities. Americans need to know that federal law will be enforced."

So it isn’t a bunch of conservatives raising an issue, it is coming from a group that is generally pretty liberal and aligned with the Democrats. You would be hard-pressed to make the argument that this is a case of political payback. If the media reports are correct, it seems pretty clear that the church crossed over the line and engaged in explicit partisan activity at this event. Perhaps they need to lose their tax exemption. Certainly the strict separationists think so.


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