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Legislator returns church's campaign contributions

By Cheryl Arvidson
The Freedom Forum Online

08.23.00

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A Georgia lawmaker has returned $2,000 to the First Assembly of God Church in Warner Robins after a Washington-based watchdog group complained to the Internal Revenue Service about the church's campaign contributions.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said an investigation into Rep. Pamela Bohannon's financial disclosure forms filed with Georgia officials showed two $1,000 contributions from the church – one in 1998 when Bohannon first sought election to the Georgia House and the second in her current re-election campaign. Bohannon, R-Warner Robins, is a member of the church, according to Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United, a religious-liberties group founded in 1947.

In a letter to the IRS, Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United wrote, "If this account is accurate, these church contributions are a clear and flagrant violation of federal tax law. I urge you to investigate the church's actions and take appropriate measures."

Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code prohibits nonprofit organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office.

In a story on the church's contributions last week in The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, both Bohannon and the church pastor, the Rev. Glynn Grantham, acknowledged the contributions but initially said they did not think they were illegal.

"My position right now is we had a member of our church that I wanted to help. We donated to the cause," Grantham told the Macon newspaper. However, about an hour later, the newspaper reported, Grantham contacted the reporter and said he was relaying a message from Bohannon.

"She said that although (the contribution) was legal in the state of Georgia, it does violate federal law regarding our tax-exempt status, so she is returning the money to the church," the newspaper quoted Grantham as saying.

A short time later, the newspaper said, it received a copy of a check for $2,000 from Bohannon to the church.

Benen, the Americans United spokesman, told
The Freedom Forum Online that his group has not heard anything from the IRS on its complaint and would not expect to hear anything because of the agency's strict confidentiality rules. He said the group found out that the IRS had moved to pull the tax-exempt status of a New York church cited in an earlier Americans United complaint only after the church went to court to try to fight the action.

Benen said pulling the tax exemption of a church is one of the options the IRS has, but the agency also could fine the church or just issue a warning, depending on its findings.

The Americans United complaint against the New York church stemmed from advertisements paid for by the church opposing the presidential bid of Bill Clinton in 1992. Benen said the action of the Georgia church to actually donate money to a political candidate was "one of the most egregious examples we have seen" of a nonprofit group getting involved in political activities.

Although the Macon paper quoted Grantham as questioning the motives of Americans United in bringing the complaint, Benen denied that there was any political agenda being pursued by his group.

"Our research and interest in this issue is purely nonpartisan," he said. "We have filed complaints with the IRS on churches working for Democratic candidates, for Republican candidates and even independent candidates. All we want is for churches to play by the rules. We have no interest in advancing any kind of partisan agenda, and our record is clear on this matter."

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