A group of 13 mainline Protestant pastors – including several from the United Church of Christ – has filed a letter of complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, claiming that a townhouse on Capitol Hill that provides inexpensive lodging and meals for conservative Christian members of Congress is not a church, and that it should not hold the tax-exempt status afforded a house of worship.
"We are concerned that an exclusive residential club for powerful officials may be masquerading as a church," said the letter to the IRS of the C Street Center, 130-year-old townhouse valued at $1.8 million. "Any time an organization uses church status as part of a tax avoidance scheme, it poses a threat to the integrity of religious institutions everywhere."
The Rev. Eric Williams, senior minister at North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, has led the effort on the complaint, which was filed Feb. 23. "Whenever I feel the (Christian) church is being maligned or misrepresented, boom! Twin flags of passion go up," says Williams. "One as a child of God, and another as an American citizen."
The C Street Center offers inexpensive lodging and meals for at least five members of Congress. The townhouse is an affiliate of a secretive international Christian network known as the Fellowship, or the Family. Its stated purpose is to cultivate relationships with politicians, business people and military leaders, bringing them together for prayer and Bible study – and sometimes getting involved in matters of diplomacy and foreign policy.
In the letter, the pastors say the C Street Center does not meet IRS requirements for a church because it does not appear to hold regular religious services open to the public; has no religious school for young people; and has no distinct creed or ecclesiastical structure. Moreover, the letter said, the center has avoided transparency by taking advantage of IRS rules that say churches do not have to file annual information returns, known as Form 990s.
Richard Carver, president of the Fellowship Foundation, the corporation that oversees Fellowship ministries, said he could not provide any information because the C Street Center was formally a separate legal entity.
J. Robert Hunter, another member of the Fellowship, said that while there was a separate legal arrangement, there was a "very close working relationship" between the center and the Fellowship. "There are religious services all the time in that building," Hunter said, but they are not open to the public. He said the residence is designed for people to model their lives on Jesus. He added that "one of the purposes is to give a safe place where politicians who are tempted by lust would hold each other accountable."
Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina has said he sought spiritual counseling there in connection with his affair with an Argentine woman. According to an article in the Feb. 24 edition of the New York Times, the residence has been home to two other legislators who espoused conservative family values but recently were tarnished – Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who admitted to an affair with an aide; and former Rep. Charles W. Pickering Jr. (R-Miss.), who faced accusations of an extramarital affair.
Last fall, after the scandals put the C Street Center in the headlines, the District of Columbia revoked tax-exempt status on 66 percent of the building, saying it was primarily a residence. The complaint to the IRS concerns the property's federal taxes.
The Feb. 24 letter was signed by pastors of Columbus-area United Church of Christ, Methodist and Episcopal churches, as well as by the Rev. Robert Molsberry, the UCC's Ohio Conference minister, and the Rev. Forrest Hoppe, association minister of the UCC's regional Central Southeast Ohio Association.