Ohio churches face probe over politics

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A group of religious leaders have accused two evangelical churches of improperly promoting an Ohio candidate for governor and want the Internal Revenue Service to investigate.

The 31 leaders from nine denominations signed a letter Sunday asking the IRS to determine if the churches should lose tax-exempt status because of their support for Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, one of three Republicans seeking the nomination.

The complaint to the IRS alleges that the Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church in Columbus and the Rev. Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster improperly used their churches and affiliated entities for partisan politics.

The clergy, from Christian faiths and Judaism, said they were acting individually and not on behalf of their congregations. The two churches defended their actions, saying their efforts were not politically motivated.

“If a church wants to start a political organization and go out and work as a political action committee, it can do that,” said Rabbi Harold Berman of Temple Tifereth Israel in Columbus. “But then, it is not eligible for the tax benefits that a church or synagogue has.”

The two churches have all but announced their support for Blackwell’s campaign, said Eric Williams, senior pastor of the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus.

“For me, it’s church and state, not church in state, and I really feel there are some churches in central Ohio crossing that line,” Williams said.

The complaint alleges that Blackwell was the only gubernatorial candidate showcased in church-sponsored events conducted by Parsley and Johnson. It also alleges that the evangelists’ voter-registration campaign was conducted to support Blackwell and that biased voter education materials were distributed by the churches for Blackwell’s candidacy.

“You have a number of churches and charities involved with a number of road trips for Mr. Blackwell, all of which seem to be aimed at gaining him visibility for his political campaign,” said Marcus Owens, a Washington tax attorney and former director of the IRS’ tax-exempt division who helped draft the complaint.

A spokesman for Parsley, Mark Youngkin, said the voter registration effort was conducted “without regard to political affiliation.”

Johnson said his church and its affiliate, the Ohio Restoration Project, do not support candidates.

“It’s sad to see the religious left and the secular left forge an unholy alliance against people of faith,” Johnson said. “We have invited people to pray, to serve and to engage, and candidly, we will not be intimidated or bullied by these folks.”

Blackwell faces Attorney General Jim Petro and Auditor Betty Montgomery in the Republican primary.

Blackwell’s campaign spokesman, Gene Pierce, declined to comment.

The IRS was closed Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The clergy who signed the complaint are affiliated with the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Judaism; the United Church of Christ; the United Methodist Church; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

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AP, via The Journal Gazette, USA
Jan. 16, 2006

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