By: Melanie McDonald
February 28, 2008
Many news outlets are reporting that the IRS is investigating the United Church of Christ (UCC) over a speech Barack Obama delivered at the denomination’s national meeting last June in Hartford, Conn. In question is whether the UCC violated the rule that tax-exempt, non-profit organizations—like churches—must avoid endorsing or supporting political candidates.
Lloyd Mayer, associate professor of law at Notre Dame Law School, addressed the issue in an interview Thursday morning with Don and Roma of WLS radio in Chicago.
“There are lots of legitimate reasons to invite someone who happens to be a candidate to speak at your church…you may have someone come because they are an expert in a particular area or they’re a particularly loyal member of your congregation…The question is why are they there and what do they say,” explains Mayer.
“Part of the reason churches are tax exempt is to avoid giving the government the power to go after church finances. But generally what the courts have said is, ‘if Congress says you can be tax exempt and get deductible contributions, then Congress can attach some conditions to that.’ And one condition they can attach is to say…you can’t support candidates.”
Mayer says that at this point, the IRS is just asking questions and has not accused anyone of wrongdoing. So at what point could the IRS say the event crossed the line?
“His speech would be important,” said Mayer. “If they had told him beforehand, ‘this is not a candidate appearance, we’re inviting you as a member of our church to speak about your faith journey’ and he blew right past that and said things about his candidacy—which he did not; I’ve seen the speech, he did not—but the church would probably still be okay because they told him ‘don’t do that, that’s not why you’re here.’
Another potential sticking point is the presence of campaign fundraisers outside the convention hall where Obama spoke. “If the church sanctioned or arranged or approved that, then they’d have a problem. They’re probably still okay if the campaigners did this on their own.”
For more information on Professor Mayer, visit his faculty profile.