Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Church-driven Huckabee surge draws eyes of some who want to keep the tax-exempt out of politics

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has gained the lead in polls of likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa, "driven largely by an eleventh-hour rally of Christian activists behind the Republican’s candidacy, and that’s certain to draw attention from tax sleuths and others," reports Jeanne Cummings, the money-and-politics reporter for Politico.com. We think it should also attract the attention of rural reporters, who are often in a better position to detect such violations of the law prohibiting political activity by tax-exempt organizations.

"The two cases should put a host of Iowa church officials on notice as they join a coalition of home-schooling families working to secure a headline-grabbing, first-primary victory for the former Arkansas governor," writes Cummings, formerly of The Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Thus far, Huckabee has been endorsed by more than 60 Iowa pastors."

“We will be watching it very closely,” Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Cummings, who notes the group "has filed two complaints with the IRS accusing Huckabee’s religious backers outside Iowa of violating their tax-free status. The California pastor who used church stationery to endorse his fellow Southern Baptist minster urged his flock "to pray for the deaths of" the AU officials who filed the complaint against him.

"A second complaint, filed against Jerry Falwell Jr., accuses the son of the late Moral Majority founder of violating Liberty University’s tax status by using the school’s resources to announce his endorsement of Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher," Cummings writes, noting that the group "is also monitoring Democrat Barack Obama’s latest round of church visits in the African American community." AU issued a release Tuesday questioning an Alabama group's plan to distribute in churches material promoting Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The IRS increased its monitoring of church political activity in 2004. "No church lost its tax status, but 42 were found to have broken the no-partisan-politicking rules and received advisories about their activities," Cummings notes. "Last year, the IRS received 237 complaints about illegal politicking by churches and charities, which led to about 100 investigations." Cummings goes on to detail the boundaries between allowable and illegal activity. (Read more)

Meanwhile, author Todd Gitlin has eight questions, many of them related to religion, that reporters should ask Huckabee. It's the first in a series for Columbia Journalism Review. Next: a set of different questions for Obama. Click here.

UPDATE, Dec. 12: Seema Mehta and Stephanie Simon of the Times write of Huckabee, "One of his premiere battalions is a tight network of Christian home-schooling families who view the campaign as a civic -- and educational -- duty." (Read more)

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