Efforts by President George W. Bush’s re-election team to obtain church directories could cause the houses of worship to run afoul of federal tax law, officials with the Internal Revenue Service say.
IRS officials were responding to an overture from the Bush campaign aimed at conservative Christian churches. A Bush-Cheney memo called for volunteers to “Send your Church Directory to your State Bush-Cheney ’04 Headquarters or give to a BC04 Field Rep.” by July 31.
In interviews with Religion News Service July 15, IRS officials advised churches to be cautious. A church that gave its membership rolls to only one campaign could put its tax exemption at risk, the officials said. Furthermore, if the list were valued at more than $1,000, the church could be required to register with the Federal Election Commission.
Joseph Urban, a manager in the exempt organizations division of the IRS, said of the Bush plan, “It would certainly raise some red flags. On the surface, it certainly raises some questions.”
Another IRS official, Jack Reilly, said the church would have to make the list available to other campaigns as well and would have to actually notify the other campaigns that the list was available.
An anonymous Bush campaign official insisted that the tactic was legal. The official said the Bush team was not asking pastors to send church directories but sought to get them from congregants. The lists, the campaign staffer said, “are readily available, public information.”
But Reilly said a church pastor who found out that a church directory was sent to a campaign and did nothing about it could be fined by the IRS.
The Bush attempt to gather church lists, which was later expanded to include Catholic churches, sparked a good deal of controversy. Even some Bush allies said it went too far. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, went so far as to say that he was “appalled” by the tactic.