WASHINGTON — News that the IRS is investigating Barack Obama’s denomination for possible improper political activity on his behalf highlights a perennial problem for all churches.

What are the acceptable limits of political activities churches can engage in without jeopardizing their tax-free status as charitable organizations?

The IRS investigation of the Illinois senator’s United Church of Christ arose as a result of a speech about faith and public life the Democratic presidential candidate gave at the denomination’s June 2007 General Synod in Hartford, Conn.

In a letter sent to the denomination in late February that the United Church of Christ released publicly, the IRS said “reasonable belief exists” that the speech involved violations of the restrictions on political activity for organizations that hold tax-exempt status under Sec. 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Associated Press reported that United Church of Christ representatives denied any wrongdoing.

Under the IRS’ interpretation of Sec. 501(c)(3), as set forth in IRS Publication 1828, religious organizations are allowed to take public positions on issues of concern but may not provide direct support to individual candidates or indicate that voters should cast ballots for or against specific candidates.

The IRS does not ban religious leaders from endorsing candidates, but they must do so as individuals rather than as official representatives of their church or religious organization.

Churches may invite individual candidates to speak on church property and host candidate forums. But in both cases, a church must not appear to favor an individual candidate.

Fresh reports about IRS investigations of other denominations could generate uncertainty among Catholic parishes and dioceses about what they can do politically without jeopardizing their tax-free status.

Deirdre Dessingue, associate general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said they can obtain detailed guidance about what is acceptable on the bishops’ conference website at usccb.org/ogc/guidelines.shtml.

The information on the website was updated last year to take into account a new IRS document, Revenue Ruling 2007-41. It provided 21 examples of political activities that churches might undertake, and specified whether those examples would violate the Internal Revenue Code.

According to Dessingue, one of the key clarifications in the IRS document is that a contravention of the tax code might arise by combining activities that are acceptable if done separately, such as a church holding a discussion about a key issue at the same time as it distributes a guide with information about candidates’ voting records on that issue.

But Dessingue said that distribution of the November 2007 revision of the bishops’ Faithful Citizenship document, which highlights that opposition to abortion should be a “preeminent issue” for Catholic voters and which explains in detail the principles involved in forming consciences with respect to political issues, shouldn’t cause any IRS problems.

“This is Catholic teaching,” Dessingue said. “It is an expression of the type of analysis that Catholic voters are called to do when they are considering the candidates. And certainly all churches are entitled to continue to teach what they teach even during an election period.”

Distribution in 2006 of Catholic Answers Action’s “Voter’s Guide,” which identifies five issues as “non-negotiable” issues that must always be opposed by Catholics — abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning and homosexual “marriage” — did not appear to cause problems with the IRS either.

Jimmy Akin, director of communications for Catholic Answers Action, said via e-mail that no IRS complaints arose because of its distribution by Catholic organizations in 2006.

The guide is available on the Internet at caaction.com.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said that in recent years it’s been mostly Protestant churches who have overstepped the IRS’s limits on political activity by campaigning directly for individual candidates.

Lynn agreed with the U.S. bishops’ Dessingue that there is no reason for Catholic churches to be wary about identifying issues like opposition to abortion as being key to voting decisions.

Said Lynn, “Of course a church has every right to make statements like that on any side of any of the moral issues of the day. It just doesn’t have a right to connect that with specific advocacy for or against a candidate.”

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.