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Pastors challenge IRS status of D.C. ‘church’


1:45 P.M. EST Feb. 25, 2010

A group of United 
Methodist and United Church of Christ pastors is challenging the 
tax-exempt status of a town house in Washington used by conservative 
lawmakers. </br>A UMNS photo illustration by Ronny Perry.
A group of United Methodist and United Church of Christ pastors is challenging the tax-exempt status of a town house in Washington used by conservative lawmakers. A UMNS photo illustration by Ronny Perry.
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United Methodist clergy are part of a group of 13 Ohio ministers challenging the tax-exempt status of a Washington, D.C., town house that claims to function as a church.

“We are concerned that an exclusive residential club for powerful officials may be masquerading as a church,” the Columbus clergy wrote in a complaint about C Street Center filed with the Internal Revenue Service. “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 C Street town house, assessed at $1.8 million, is an affiliate of an international Christian network known as the Fellowship, The New York Times reported. The group sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast held in Washington and some state capitals each February.

J. Robert Hunter, a member of the Fellowship, told the Times that while there was a separate legal arrangement, there was a “very close working relationship” between the center and the Fellowship. He said religious services were often held in the building, but were not open to the public.

The center was in the news after Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina received spiritual counseling there following his acknowledgement of an extramarital affair. Some members of Congress also have inexpensive lodgings at the building.

Not a church, say pastors

The Rev. Eric Williams, senior minister at North Congregational United Church of Christ, organized the complaint as part of an ad hoc group called Clergy Voice. He said that while there is speculation on what actually goes on at the C Street Center, the building is not functioning as a church.

“It doesn’t do anything that my church does or anything that my colleagues’ churches do,” Williams explained. “There’s no transparency at all about the C Street Center.”

The Rev. David 
W. Meredith. <br/>UMNS photo by Charles Burrus.
The Rev. David W. Meredith.
UMNS photo by Charles Burrus.
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United Methodists who signed the Feb. 23 complaint were the Rev. David Meredith, senior minister, Broad Street United Methodist Church; the Rev. William Casto, a retired professor at Methodist Theological Seminary of Ohio; and the Rev. James Gebhart, a clinical psychologist and pastoral counselor for the West Ohio Annual (regional) Conference.

The issue is not which side of the political spectrum is represented by the C Street Center, but how it operates, Meredith said.

“It is a bad reflection on all of us who do that when an organization of this nature does it (tax-exempt status) for political, partisan purposes and does it in a clandestine way. They’re just not church.

“I take the name of Jesus seriously. What I do reflects on it,” Meredith said. “When people are reflecting badly on it, sometimes they have to be reminded.”

Gebhart noted that separation of church and state is necessary both for religious freedom and to protect the state from religious zealots. He and Casto said they were disturbed about the secretive nature of the organization connected with the C Street Center.

Previous complaints

The ad hoc group has filed two other complaints with the IRS in the past four years related to political activities forbidden for churches with tax-exempt status.

In 2006, 31 pastors requested an investigation into whether two Ohio megachurches – World Harvest Church in Columbus and the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster – overtly supported a Republican candidate for governor.

In 2008, 45 ministers filed a complaint about the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit group that it said was urging churches to take sides in political campaigns through its “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

In the previous cases, Casto said, the group was questioning whether recognized churches were obeying IRS rules for tax-exempt religious institutions. “In this case, we are saying C Street is not a church,” he added.

The complaint points out that the center “has no recognized creed or form of worship, no distinct ecclesiastical government and no formal code of doctrine,” and does not seem to be led by ordained ministers.

“The IRS could not act until they had an official complaint,” Gebhart said. “Now our hope is the secrecy will be opened up, and they will have to be accountable to the public for what they do.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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