Mich. Church Violated Tax Law During Election, Says AU Complaint

A Michigan church whose pastor issued a letter endorsing two school board candidates should be investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United on June 15 asked the IRS to look into the activities of Pastor Jim Combs of Faith Baptist Church in Waterford Township, Mich. AU says Combs violated the IRS Code when he issued a missive on church letterhead to parishioners asking them to support two school board candidates, one of whom is his own son.

The undated letter criticized three board incumbents, implying that they had not exercised proper financial stewardship over the schools. It also accuses schools of "promoting tolerance for homosexuals." It went on to endorse two challengers.

"In this battle for our schools, I am publicly and strongly supporting two men from our church who have followed the call of God to run for the Waterford School Board," wrote Combs. "The first is Michael Nolan, a man of integrity and moral conviction. Mike has a Masters Degree in Business, and would improve the financial integrity of the Waterford School Board. The other candidate I am supporting is my son, Joshua, who recently graduated from college with his Bachelors. He and his wife, Jennifer, have sincerely dedicated themselves to the children of our community and wish to further their commitment through service to our schools."

The letter concludes, "The importance of this election cannot be overstated.... [R]emember to encourage your neighbors and friends to vote for Michael Nolan and Joshua Combs."

Joining Americans United in the complaint to the IRS was the Triangle Foundation, Michigan's leading civil rights organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

AU and the Triangle Foundation say Combs clearly crossed the line into forbidden intervention in a political campaign.

"This is a blatant violation of federal tax law," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It's an open-and-shut case. Pastor Combs has violated the law and should pay the penalty."

"The letter is not only anti-gay and offensive, but Pastor Combs broke the law and should be punished accordingly," said Sean Kosofsky, Triangle Foundation's Director of Policy. "If the IRS lets this church get away with breaking the law, then the IRS rules are meaningless. Charitable organizations should not try to influence elections."

Combs was apparently motivated to intervene in the election after being told by school officials that he and his son could no longer visit with schoolchildren during lunch hour. In his letter, he lashes out at public education.

"In 1963," wrote the pastor, "public education was given over to liberal special interest groups to the great enjoyment of our enemy Satan."

Later in the letter, he urged church members to get involved in the election.

"I believe," Combs asserted, "that the 'sleeping giant', known as the body of Christ, the church must wake up and reclaim the Waterford Schools for the glory of God."

The IRS Code forbids tax-exempt, non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in political campaigns by endorsing candidates. Penalties can include revocation of tax-exempt status.

Combs' attempt at political intervention caused quite a stir in his Michigan community. It also backfired. On election day, his favored candidates both lost. Joshua Combs won only 13 percent of the vote.

Jim Combs told the Detroit News that he never meant to endorse anyone. He said the letter was meant to come from him as an individual and should not have been placed on church letterhead. A second letter was sent to clarify matters, he said.

A few days after the election, officials with the Oakland County Sheriff's Office announced that they were investigating Joshua Combs for possibly providing false information on campaign documents.

Investigators say the younger Combs was not a resident of Waterford Township at the time he filed to run for office. His application to run, they alleged, listed a vacant house in the township as his residence.