OH Restoration Project churches in IRS trouble?
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Mon Jan 16, 2006 at 11:51:44 AM EST
Two particular churches which have been linked to the Ohio Restoration Project--World Harvest Church in Columbus and Fairfield Christian Church (also in Columbus)--may be in serious tax trouble.

An alliance of thirty moderate churches has teamed together to file formal complaint against World Harvest Church and Fairfield Christian Church for electioneering violations.

As groups such as DefCon America are gathering documentation of illegal electioneering in churches, it's very encouraging to also see mainstream churches finally standing up to dominionists attempting to hijack Christianity.

Most of you are familiar with the Ohio Restoration Project (which has been the subject of several posts on Talk2Action, most notably "Let's Talk About Ohio...NOW!").  For those who aren't, I'll refer you to the excellent series of articles that Theocracy Watch has done on dominionism in the state, and on the Ohio Restoration Project in particular.

World Harvest Church is the de facto center of the "patriot pastor" movement; the church itself is a neopentecostal "nondenominational" church that, like several large independent neopentecostal churches (like Ted Haggard's New Life Church) does maintain friendly relations with the Assemblies of God despite not being an AoG church proper.  (I've so far been unable to find a listing for them in AoG directories, at any rate.  The exact relationship is hard to feel out, as it is only very rarely that even AoG megachurches list their affiliation, listing themselves as "nondenominational" as well--one usually has to do quite a bit of research to find the links to the Assemblies.)

World Harvest claims 12,000 members (though a scholarly discussion of megachurches lists the number of members closer to 3000; exaggeration of numbers is common in megachurches, especially those with multiple campuses), operates a considerable televangelism empire, has an church affinity Mastercard, and even offers "online bill" payment services where "donations" and tithes are automatically deducted from bank accounts of members.  The church also operates a dominionist group, the Center for Moral Clarity, which has as part of its purpose the spawning of "Ohio Restoration Movement" type groups throughout the United States.  Parsley has criticised other nations, most notably Sweden (which has investigated several pastors affiliated with US-based dominionist groups for violation of their hate-speech laws, which include protection for LGBT individuals explicitly).  Of note, Parsley also is explicitly a word-faith preacher (aka "name it and claim it") and promotes the idea of "seed faith offerings"--giving money to the church "till it hurts" in hopes God will multiply the blessing (in other words, yes, God is promoted very much as a divine Ponzi scheme) and has promoted faith healing despite the fact his son is autistic.  (As autistic kids are seen as being possessed by demons--and at least one documented case of "death by exorcism" exists specifically regarding an attempt at exorcising an autistic child by a pentecostal church--this is worrying.)

Even with its known partisan links, World Harvest Church was apparently a polling place during Ohio's last election.

Fairfield Christian Church is the lesser known of the two churches in question, but also has dominionist links.  The church actively promotes Athletes in Action (a group connected with Campus Crusade for Christ that has been involved in numerous cases of "stealth evangelism" via anti-drug assemblies at which attendance was mandatory, even deceiving school officials re the use of prosyletisation (one instance, ironically, was successfully stopped in Ohio; AiA is also linked to the USAFA religious coercion scandals and similar instances where coaches associated with AiA have pressured students to convert have been documented elsewhere); the church's links site promotes Fellowship of Christian Athletes (a group linked to similar deceptive recruiting and coercion as AiA) as well as Focus on the Family and several other groups that have promoted dominionism.

Fairfield Christian Church also claims it is "nondenominational"; however, at least historically it was associated with the Church of Christ (and probably was removed from it for being a megachurch, much like Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY); the church apparently has two separate campuses it operates from.

Reportedly, according to Max Blumenthal Fairfield Christian Church keeps regular correspondence with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council--the latter of which has maintained friendly relations with multiple racist groups including the Council of Conservative Citizens and David Duke (the former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the KKK group friendliest to militia and neo-Nazi groups in the US).

Anyways...it seems that the non-dominionist Christian groups in Columbus have finally had all they can stand of the two dominionist churches and their electioneering.

In possibly the first case I've ever seen of this (and hopefully this will be a sign that more churches will wake up and take Christianity back), 30 pastors in the Columbus, OH area have filed complaint en masse with the IRS regarding World Harvest Church and Fairfield Christian Church:

More than 30 local pastors last night officially accused two evangelical megachurches of illegal political activities.

In a rare and potentially explosive action, the moderate ministers signed a complaint asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate World Harvest Church of Columbus and Fairfield Christian Church of Lancaster and determine if their tax-exempt status should be revoked.

The grievance claims that the Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church and the Rev. Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church improperly used their churches and affiliated entities -- the Center for Moral Clarity, Ohio Restoration Project and Reformation Ohio -- for partisan politics, including supporting the Republican gubernatorial candidacy of Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.

The complaint asks the IRS to seek a court injunction "if these churches' flagrant political campaign activities do not cease immediately." It was signed by 31 pastors from nine denominations during a meeting last night at the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus and was to be faxed late last night to IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson.

"For me, it's church and state, not church in state and I really feel there are some churches in central Ohio crossing that line," said Eric Williams, senior pastor of the host church. "The law allows church involvement in issues. This goes beyond issue-involvement to partisan politics and we're simply asking the IRS to uphold the law."

According to the article,
The complaint makes three main allegations:

  • That church-sponsored events conducted by Parsley and Johnson have showcased a single gubernatorial candidate -- Blackwell.

  • That Parsley and Johnson have launched a "partisan-oriented" voter-registration campaign "with the goal of registering 400,000 voters to support Blackwell's candidacy."

  • That Parsley and Johnson have been behind efforts to distribute "biased voter education" materials aimed at solidifying voter support for Blackwell.

Needless to say, both World Harvest Church and Fairfield Christian are claiming they've done nothing wrong (World Harvest Church even claiming the groups it runs are "separate entitites").

Needless to say, this could put a world of hurt on both churches--especially since it's pastors of other churches filing the complaint:

John Green, a University of Akron authority on religion and politics, said the complaint is extraordinary because it was filed by pastors rather than watchdog groups that routinely monitor church and state issues.

"This complaint is detailed and complex enough that I think the IRS is going to say, `We better look into this,' " said Green, author of Religion and the Culture Wars.

Complaints and investigations of violations of tax-exempt status for electioneering violations have reportedly become more common.  Americans United and, more recently, DefCon America have led the front in pushing for investigations, but apparently up until the recent push for investigation of dominionist churches such complaints have been rare indeed:
Marcus Owens, a Washington, D.C., tax attorney and director of the IRS tax-exempt division from 1990 to 2000, said that IRS investigations of churches typically involve theft, but examinations of churches for playing politics are becoming more common.

Owens, who helped the clergy draft the IRS petition, said they had extensively documented the alleged political activities of Parsley and Johnson and their affiliated organizations.

"You have a number of churches and charities involved with a number of road trips for Mr. Blackwell, all of which seem to be aimed at gaining him visibility for his political campaign," Owens said.
. . .
Marci A. Hamilton, a professor of constitutional law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City and an expert on the separation of church and state, said she was surprised by the pastors' complaint.

"There are very few instances where anybody's ever been turned in on this," she said. "Even though the laws are on the books, it's rare that the law is enforced."

During the last 15 years or so, Hamilton added, churches have had "a tacit agreement" to look the other way and not criticize each other for political activities. But, she said, that appears to be changing as televangelists and conservative evangelical churches flex their muscles in the political arena.

"Those who have been in favor of separation of church and state have been pretty quiet, and it may be because they couldn't get hold of the microphone. The agenda has been set by the religious right for so long."

Owens, who is representing a pacifist California church being audited because its former pastor delivered an anti-war sermon, said the number of investigations has grown dramatically of late, particularly under the Bush presidency.

"I think historically there were about 20 audits a year, and the number now is up to 50 or 100," he recalled from his 25-year tenure at the IRS, including 10 as head of its tax-exempt arm.

Owens said the jump in the number of church investigations has occurred because, since 2004, audits no longer require high-level approval in the IRS, and can be initiated by revenue agents or their subordinates.

"It is like doing away with the grand jury and giving authority to the cop on the beat," he said. "On its face, it really smells and suggests that there is something very wrong with how the IRS selects cases for review."

According to the article, there are at least nine documented instances where Blackwell was promoted or held rallies at the two churches in question, or members of the churches were told to vote for Blackwell.  One example is particularly egregrious:
During an October gathering at the Ohio Statehouse orchestrated by Reformation Ohio and led by Parsley, the televangelist called upon supporters of his $38.5 milliona-year church and affiliated operations to sign up 400,000 voters statewide. Blackwell shared the dais with Parsley.

"Man your battle stations," Parsley commanded attendees, who had been bused Downtown from his World Harvest Church. "Ready your weapons. Lock and load. Let the reformation begin."

Mark Owens himself has some experience with electioneering law; he is presently defending a pacifist church in California (All Saint's Episcopal) that has been targeted by the IRS for speaking out against the war in Iraq.  Part of the reason he's filing the lawsuit is to determine (in rather dramatic fashion) if the IRS is showing partisan favouritism towards dominionist churches in complaints re electioneering.

Needless to say, this is going to heat things up considerably in regards to the Ohio elections controversy and the attempts by Ohio dominionists to hijack the government there.  The fact that moderate churches are now starting to actively fight back is extremely encouraging; if the thirty pastors are successful, more teamwork should be encouraged with moderate churches to stop those dominionist churches actively electioneering.  (In Louisville, for instance, a coalition of moderate churches banded together to counterprotest the first Justice Sunday event.)

This is good news and the Dispatch article you linked to does a fine job of reporting. I first got the news via the NY Times - and that is a breakthrough. The corporate media has been seemingly reluctant to cover these issues. To find the Times not only reporting but doing so in a fairly comprehensive manner was astounding. Getting information out on blogs and in local newspapers is important but it doesn't have the impact of attention by national media. The fact that this action comes from mainstream clergy gives it additional credibility.

While we're talking about Ohio, don't know if people here heard about the other "outing" of the the Religious Right. Paul Hackett, the Iraq vet that almost beat "Mean Jean" Shmidt in the last election in a very conservative area and is now running for the US Senate, took dead aim at our resident dominionists. And, more important, he didn't back down in the face of counter-attacks by the right.

by Psyche on Tue Jan 17, 2006 at 03:41:15 PM EST

Regarding the statement, Needless to say, this could put a world of hurt on both churches--especially since it's pastors of other churches filing the complaint

I do not deny that it is true, though it is also upsetting.

It is an unmistakable sign of the worst form of bigotry that in this society, we can well imagine two people making an identical complaint, where one is an atheist and the other a pastor, and that the atheist making the complaint will be scorned and ridiculed, while the pastor will be taken seriously.

It would be nice to live in a society where the government and the people do not check a person's religious affiliation in deciding whether he is saying something worth listening to.
Alonzo Fyfe

The Atheist Ethicist
by Alonzo Fyfe on Tue Jan 17, 2006 at 11:04:37 PM EST

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