Obama church speech probed
The IRS is investigating the United Church of Christ over a speech Sen. Barack Obama gave at its national meeting last year after he became a candidate for president, the denomination said Tuesday.
Obama, an Illinois Democrat, belongs to the 1.2 million-member Protestant group through his Chicago congregation.
In a letter the denomination received Monday, the IRS said “reasonable belief exists” that the circumstances surrounding the speech violated restrictions on political activity for tax-exempt organizations. The denomination has denied any wrongdoing.
Obama, a member of Trinity United Church of Christ, spoke about faith and public life at the denomination’s June 2007 General Synod in Hartford, Conn.
The IRS said in the letter that it was concerned about articles posted on the church’s website and on other sites stating that Obama had addressed nearly 10,000 people at the event. The agency also said Obama volunteers had staffed campaign tables “outside the center to promote his campaign.”
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a spokesman for the Cleveland-based denomination, said that a group of Obama volunteers was outside the Hartford Civic Center, where the event took place, but that they were told they could not enter the meeting.
The United Church of Christ had invited Obama to speak a year before he announced he was running for president because of his involvement in the denomination, Guess said.
Church leaders consulted with lawyers before the event on following IRS rules. Before Obama spoke, a top church official told the crowd that the senator’s talk was not a campaign-related event and that no leaflets or other signs of political support would be allowed.
Nonprofits are barred from endorsing candidates or providing support for campaigns, although groups are allowed to invite candidates to address them, and many do so. Guess said no other presidential candidates were invited because Obama was the only one active in the church.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the denomination, called the inquiry “disturbing.”
“When the invitation to an elected public official to speak to the national meeting of his own church family is called into question, it has a chilling effect on every religious community,” Thomas said in a statement.
Amy Brundage, an Obama spokeswoman, insisted that the speech was not a campaign event. In the address, Obama spoke about his personal spiritual journey and had said that faith had been misused in the past to divide Americans, partly because of the Christian right.