The owners of a $1.8 million townhouse on Capitol Hill that has been home and refuge to conservative members of Congress are wrongly claiming a federal tax exemption reserved for religious establishments, 13 Ohio clergy members contend in a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service.
The clergy suspect that the C Street Center, which rents living space to lawmakers, is “an exclusive club for powerful officials . . . masquerading as a church,” according to a request for an investigation addressed to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman.
The Ohio clergy, all Protestant members of Clergy Voice, say that the house serves no public interest and has no recognized creed or form of worship.
The 130-year-old brick townhouse at 133 C St. SE. drew unwelcome publicity and the scrutiny of D.C. tax authorities last summer, after South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) said while confessing an extramarital affair on national television that he had sought spiritual advice there. Residents say they share meals and Bible study.
Soon after, it emerged that a resident of the house, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), was having an affair with the wife of a former aide. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a colleague and fellow resident, said he met the cuckolded husband at the house and worked to end the affair and save Ensign’s marriage.
And former Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering Jr., a Mississippi Republican, entertained his mistress there, according to court papers filed by his estranged wife.
D.C. authorities inspected the house in 2009 and classified it as 66 percent taxable and 34 percent tax-exempt.
Calls directed to the C Street Center, affiliated with the Fellowship Foundation, a Virginia-based group that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast, were not returned Monday.
“C Street is a completely separate foundation with its own board. It’s separate ownership, and I haven’t been there personally in probably six years,” said Richard Carver, president of the Fellowship Foundation. “We have no direct connection in any way with their status or what goes on at C Street.”
The reverends irreverently call themselves the “Dirty 31,” a reference to a moniker they received in a 2006 letter to the editor of The Dispatch from a local Baptist minister.
Three times now, including a complaint they plan to file today against the secretive C Street Center in Washington, D.C., the activist pastors have challenged the tax-exempt status of religious organizations they believe have improperly dabbled in partisan politics.
Their numbers fluctuate, but their mission is always the same: protect the divide between church and state. They do it with passion.
“What angers me most is when (churches or pastors) interpret the words of Jesus to uphold their own political motives,” said the Rev. Al Debelak, senior minister at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Columbus.
Today’s complaint against the C Street Center is signed by 13 of the pastors, who have been led by the Rev. Eric Williams, senior minister at North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus.
“Whenever I feel the (Christian) church is being maligned or misrepresented, boom! Twin flags of passion go up – one as a child of God, and another as an American citizen,” Williams said.
Although the IRS does not make public its disposition of complaints, seven pastors interviewed at Williams’ church said they have seen evidence that their activism has highlighted and tempered the political involvement of churches.