Amid IRS Scrutiny, Houses of Worship Examine Get-out-the-vote Programs

October 31, 2006

Author: William Douglas

Source: Star Tribune

WASHINGTON - Scores of houses of worship nationwide are re-examining how they conduct get-out-the-vote programs and other election activities as the Internal Revenue Service investigates religious institutions for illegal campaign activity.

Churches grew more nervous when the IRS launched an investigation of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., after a former rector delivered a sermon that was critical of the Bush administration and the Iraq war before the 2004 presidential election. The church last month said it would fight the IRS in court.

With congressional elections on Tuesday, several religious and voting rights groups are teaching churches, synagogues and other religious institutions about what they can and cannot do politically under IRS regulations.

Religious institutions and other charitable organizations that violate the rules risk fines and losing their federal tax-exempt status. Fear of IRS investigations has made clergy across religious faiths reluctant to be politically active this election cycle.

"I think there's a chill," said the Rev. Rick Scarborough, the president of Vision America, a politically active conservative Christian group that promotes civic involvement by the faithful. "I've had pastors come up and tell me their congregations have told them not to mention politics because it's illegal. It's not."