By David Waters
If every tax-exempt religious organization received the same scrutiny as Washington’s now famous C Street rowhouse, the IRS would have its hands full. But given the evidence available, it’s difficult to see why a boarding house for evangelical Congressmen should be classified as a church — for the purposes of God or Caesar.
Until last fall, the C Street Center paid no property taxes in the District of Columbia because it received an E1, or religious, exemption. After D.C. officials inspected the $1.8 million townhouse near the U.S. Capitol, they declared 66 percent of it to be a taxable residence, not a tax-exempt church. “Portions are being rented to private individuals for residential purposes,” a D.C. official told the Post.
Now the C Street house’s federal tax status is being challenged. Last month, a group of 13 (interesting New Testament number) clergy asked the IRS to investigate. The complaint alleges the center is “an exclusive residential club for powerful officials may be masquerading as a church” and it lists five members of Congress as rent-paying residents.
It’s unclear who actually lives in the house (at least two Congressmen say they have moved outt), who owns it or how much they charge for rent, or what sort of tax-exempt religious activities occur there. But given the house’s clear connection to members of Congress, isn’t it time for time for those questions to be answered?
DC tax records say the 130-year-old brick townhouse at 133 C St. SE was owned by Youth With a Mission D.C. Youth With a Mission, an evangelical Christian organization. But that group told the Post that the property was transferred 20 years ago to C Street Center Inc.
Some say the house is affiliated with Fellowship Foundation, a Virginia-based group that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast. But foundation officials deny that. “C Street is a completely separate foundation with its own board. It’s separate ownership, and I haven’t been there personally in probably six years,” Richard Carver, president of the Fellowship Foundation, told The Post. “We have no direct connection in any way with their status or what goes on at C Street.”
The house has no affiliation with a particular church or Christian denomination, but residents and others say it does have a religious purpose. Residents have said they share meals and Bible study, and that other politicians come to the house for spirituality sessions, prayer meetings or to simply share their troubles.
Some of those troubles have biblical implications.
Last summer, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said (during his televised confession of an extramarital affair) he had sought spiritual advice there. Later, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said he had used the house to counsel fellow resident and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who admitted to an affair with the wife of a former aide. Meanwhile, according to court papers filed by his estranged wife, former resident and Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering Jr., a Mississippi Republican, used the house to entertain his mistress.
I suppose you could argue that some of those activities would qualify as “exempt purposes” set forth in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. According to the tax code, charitable purposes can include “lessening the burdens of government” and “relief of the distressed.”
And, technically, the C Street Center doesn’t have to be a church to qualify for tax exemptions. The IRS distinguishes between “churches” as “places of worship” and “religious organizations” whose “principal purpose is the study or advancement of religion.” Perhaps the men at C Street Center spend a lot of time studying the stories of David and Bathsheba, or Jesus’ admonitions against adultery and divorce.
But even in the unlikely event that the house passes IRS muster for it’s religious or charitable activities, what about its political activities? To qualify for tax exemptions, 501(c)3 organization’s “may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” Hard to imagine that a house that serves politicians could pass that test.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” But the gospel doesn’t say anything about Jesus charging rent, or asking for a tax exemption.
Read more about religion and politics at Patheos.com