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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
January 20, 2006

Tax these churches

Clergy accuse mega-churches of breaking IRS politics rule

Columbus--Two anti-gay mega-churches with political arms are the targets of a complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service, charging that they violated their tax-exempt status by engaging in partisan electioneering.

The complaint, endorsed by 31 Central Ohio members of the clergy from nine different denominations, was signed on January 15.

It alleges that Rev. Rod Parsley�s World Harvest Church in Canal Winchester and Rev. Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster used their churches as platforms to endorse specific candidates and parties, in violation of IRS codes governing non-profit organizations.

Parsley also runs the Center for Moral Clarity, which is legally part of World Harvest, as well as Reformation Ohio, also registered as a church.

Johnson�s Ohio Restoration Project, which was formerly known as the Fairfield Family Association, was recognized as a tax-exempt organization in 2000.

The letter comes in the wake of an investigation of a left-leaning church in California, whose former pastor gave a 2004 sermon criticizing the war in Iraq. Critics argue that it amounted to the church endorsing John Kerry�s presidential bid.

The religious leaders filing the complaint against Parsley and Johnson pointed to three general areas of activity that they believe constitute a clear transgression of IRS policies.

First, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell was featured at a significant number of events. Blackwell is one of three Republican candidates for governor this year, and the complaint alleges that, even at events where the other Republican candidates, Auditor Betty Montgomery and Attorney General Jim Petro, were present, Blackwell was given clearly preferential treatment.

The second portion regards the churches� much-touted voter registration efforts, which the complaint points out were targeted specifically at evangelical Christians, who are more likely to vote Republican.

One of President Bush�s top political advisor Karl Rove�s strategies in the 2004 election was to get constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage on the ballots in swing states, including Ohio, in the belief that it would draw out evangelical voters who would then also support Bush.

Blackwell told supporters at an event that he had promised the Bush campaign that he would get the amendment on the ballot, despite the fact that it was his duty to impartially certify the petitions used to put it on the ballot. He also promised the deliver the state of Ohio to Bush in the election.

The third allegation is that the churches, and their affiliates, distributed voter education materials designed to support Blackwell�s bid for governor.

The complaint also notes that, starting in 2000, six of Fairfield�s congregants have been elected to public office, and the church actively recruited at least one of them for candidacy.

�While church members are certainly permitted to run for public office, [Fairfield] used its influence over its congregation to assist its members in getting elected,� the document notes.

Of Johnson, it says, �In his view, the �pagan left� was waging war against the very definition of marriage, and he warned that a �flood of demonic oppression� would come with any recognition of �homosexual rights.� �

It continues, quoting from the Ohio Restoration Project�s stated goals, � �Ohio for Jesus advertising in 30-second radio spots would feature Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, Republican candidate for governor.� �

�It is this intent, to intervene in the 2006 gubernatorial election, that causes [the Ohio Restoration Project�s] activities to be impermissible.�

The complaint notes at length various events organized by Parsley in which Blackwell was prominently featured, even being singled out for praise by former Sen. Zell Miller, whose support for conservative Christian Republicans has earned him derision among his own party.

Parley and Johnson fired back that the complaint was a partisan attack, ignoring their charitable work, which includes donating food to the needy.

Rev. Eric Williams of North Congregational United Church of Christ, one of the 31 who signed the complaint, explained, �I am concerned about their political activity.�

�I would certainly want to affirm the work they do as churches, but when these churches and their pastors engage in electioneering, I get upset because it affects my religious freedom,� Williams continued. �I don�t want morality legislated in Ohio or the United States.�

Williams� church is part of the Open and Affirming movement, which welcomes LGBT people into all aspects of church life.

Other signatories represent various faith traditions, including Judaism, the American Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalism, the Presbyterian Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

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