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US tax service probes denomination over Obama speech


The US Internal Revenue Service is investigating whether a speech at the United Church of Christ’s 2007 general synod by Barack Obama, who is seeking to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, amounts to denominational engagement in "political activities".

"We are confident that the IRS [tax service] investigation will confirm that no laws were violated," the Rev. John H. Thomas, the denomination’s general minister and president, said in a statement released on 26 February. "The United Church of Christ took great care to ensure that Senator Obama’s appearance before the 50th anniversary general synod met appropriate legal and moral standards."

US churches are exempt from paying federal taxes but must adhere to rules that prohibit the formal endorsement of candidates running for public office.

Obama is a member of the 1.2-million-member United Church of Christ. He was one of 60 speakers, including artists, writers, scholars, and business people and others, who addressed the June 2007 denominational assembly about how religious faith grounded their vocations.

The UCC said the IRS told it on 20 February that "reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardise its tax-exempt status."

Thomas said the UCC would fully cooperate but also said the investigation was "disturbing". Presidential candidates are allowed to speak before church groups, and there is a long history of them doing so.

"When the invitation to an elected public official to speak to the national meeting of his own church family is called into question," Thomas said, "it has a chilling effect on every religious community that seeks to encourage politicians and church members to thoughtfully relate their personal faith to their public responsibilities."

Ecumenical News International