Written by Daniel Hazard
Obama speech to General Synod at center of inquiry
One of the nation's top law firms is representing the UCC in wake of an Internal Revenue Service investigation of the church's tax-exempt status.
WilmerHale, a prestigious Washington, D.C.-based firm, was retained on March 3 to represent the church, according to Donald C. Clark, UCC Nationwide Special Counsel.
Seth P. Waxman, former Solicitor General of the United States (1997- 2001), will lead WilmerHale's team of attorneys working on the UCC's behalf. Waxman, considered one of the nation's top appellate-level attorneys, has won 9 of 9 cases he has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I am confident that, when the IRS learns all the relevant facts, it will conclude that the General Synod of the United Church of Christ did not come close to conducting political campaign activity at its 2007 gathering," Waxman said.
On Feb. 26, the UCC's Cleveland-based national offices announced that it had been notified that the IRS was looking into U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's speech at General Synod as potentially unlawful.
Obama, an active member of the United Church of Christ for more than 20 years, addressed the UCC's 50th anniversary General Synod in Hartford, Conn., on June 23, 2007, as one of 60 diverse speakers representing the arts, media, academia, science, technology, business and government. Each was asked to reflect on the intersection of their faith and their respective vocations or fields of expertise. The invitation to Obama was extended a year before he became a Democratic presidential candidate.
In its Feb. 20 letter, the IRS said it was initiating a church tax inquiry "because reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status." Although the letter stated that the church had 15 days to respond to the IRS claim, the UCC was granted an extension until March 27. At press time, information about the response was not available.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, called the investigation "disturbing" but said the investigation would reveal that the church did nothing improper or illegal.
"The United Church of Christ took great care to ensure that Sen. Obama's appearance before the 50th anniversary General Synod met appropriate legal and moral standards," Thomas told United Church News. "We are confident that the IRS investigation will confirm that no laws were violated."
WilmerHale also said it will not charge the denomination for its attorneys' time, prompting church leaders to halt further appeals for a "UCC Legal Fund," an online effort initiated in late February that raised $59,564 in less than a week.
"While we know there will be other significant expenses associated with our defense, we are profoundly grateful to WilmerHale for offering its attorney time without the customary hourly fee," Thomas said. "Thanks to the immediate and generous outpouring from our members and supporters, we now believe we will have sufficient resources to cover other related legal costs."