Written by Bennett Guess
The UCC has selected one of the nation's top law firms to represent the denomination in the wake of an Internal Revenue Service investigation of the church's tax-exempt status.
WilmerHale, a prestigious Washington, D.C.-based firm, is being retained because of an IRS-initiated church tax inquiry related to a speech given by U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, a UCC member, at the UCC's national General Synod in June 2007.
Seth P. Waxman, former Solicitor General of the United States (1997 to 2001), will lead WilmerHale's team of attorneys working on behalf of the UCC. 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.
"There is a bigger issue here that affects faith communities in general," Waxman said. "The IRS must proceed with great care and sensitivity to the First Amendment when it initiates an investigation in reaction to a speech at a religious event; and, when it learns that there is no basis to proceed, it must announce that conclusion quickly and clearly. We hope that the IRS does so here."
WilmerHale also said it will not charge the denomination for its attorneys' time, prompting church leaders to halt further appeals for a newly created "UCC Legal Fund," an online effort that raised $59,564 in less than a week. It was expected that the UCC's legal challenge easily could exceed the six-figure mark.
"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," said the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president. "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. Therefore, we feel it's best to suspend additional fundraising and to wait to determine, in the weeks to come, if additional money will be needed. We will keep a careful accounting of our costs, and we will ensure that the intent of our donors is honored."
Donald C. Clark, the UCC's Nationwide Special Counsel, said he has been encouraged by the generous response the church has received, especially from the legal community.
"Since this inquiry was initiated, the United Church of Christ has received countless offers of legal assistance from extremely well qualified attorneys and law firms throughout the country," Clark said. "We are encouraged by the legal community's recognition of the importance of the issues at stake. We appreciate all of the offers of support we have received, and have selected outstanding counsel to bring forward the facts that will resolve this matter."
In addition to Clark and Waxman, the UCC's team of attorneys includes Randolph D. Moss, co-chair of WilmerHale's Government and Regulatory Litigation practice group; William J. Wilkins, chair-elect of the American Bar Association's Section of Taxation and a fellow of the American College of Tax Counsel; and Brian J. Menkes, former chair of the D.C. Bar Association Taxation Section, Exempt Organizations Committee.