Group requests IRS inquiry into 2 Md. churches

The Baltimore Sun

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate four churches - including two in Maryland - for recent political activities.

"We believe that partisan politicking has no place in the pulpits," said Robert Boston, assistant director of communications for the Washington-based organization.

Groups, including churches, that have tax-exempt status are prohibited by federal law from making political endorsements or working on behalf of any candidate or campaign.

In letters to the IRS, Americans United claims that the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge hosted a Nov. 2 rally for several candidates, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley, who won last week's election.

A pastor for Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton criticized Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, during a Nov. 5 sermon while the Democratic candidate, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, sat in the front row, according to the organization's letter to the IRS.

The IRS does not disclose information about current investigations.

The Rev. Delman L. Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church said he did not endorse Cardin during his sermon and that his intention was to urge congregants to be "informed about the issues" when they cast their ballots Nov. 7.

"At no time have I nor the church endorsed or opposed a candidate for public office nor has the church used its resources in partisan campaigning," he said in an interview yesterday. "We fully support and observe federal tax laws that place limitations on certain political activity."

During Coates' sermon, The Sun reported, he said: "All of your skinfolk ain't your kinfolk."

Steele is the state's highest-ranking African-American official. Cardin, a 10-term congressman, is white.

A call to Bethel AME Church was not returned yesterday.

The Americans United complaint also cites a Sioux City, Iowa, group for circulating voter guides produced by the Iowa Christian Alliance, and a Hot Springs, Ark., assembly for hosting a forum for the state's Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Church involvement in political activity is a frequent issue during election years. The Sun reported in February that 100 Maryland churches, including dozens in Baltimore, had made illegal campaign contributions since 2000 - donations that violate federal tax laws.

Churches "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign," according to a 28-page brochure published by the IRS that summarizes the tax code for churches.

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