The Internal Revenue Service has warned the NAACP that the civil rights group's tax-exempt status could be revoked because of remarks Chairman Julian Bond made at an NAACP convention in July "in opposition of George W. Bush for the office of presidency."
"We are conducting an examination of your organization. At this time, the focus of our examination is limited to the issues of whether or not your organization has intervened in a political campaign," IRS agent Kathleen D. Krawczyk said in an Oct. 8 letter sent to NAACP headquarters in Baltimore.
The letter explained that tax-exempt groups under Internal Revenue Code section 501 (c)(3), such as the NAACP, are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.
Mr. Bond and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume yesterday questioned the timing of the notification, given Tuesday's presidential elections, and charged it was motivated by politics. They said the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, founded in 1909, has a nearly century-old policy of criticizing sitting presidents, no matter the political party.
In a form the IRS attached with its letter, the agency explained its claim that Mr. Bond made statements opposing Mr. Bush for the presidency this way: "Specifically ... Mr. Bond condemned the administration policies of George W. Bush on education, the economy, and the war in Iraq."
Reacting to those claims, Mr. Mfume said, "We are non-partisan, but we've never been non-critical."
Mr. Bond said: "Nor does any law require that we not be critical. We'll fight this clearly partisan effort to still our voices. ... We're aware of the difference between criticism and partisanism and are confident we have not crossed the line."
The chairman went on to say: "My impression absolutely is that this (IRS warning) is political. It suggests the president of the United States is somehow above criticism."
At no point in his July 11 speech at the NAACP's 95th convention did Mr. Bond urge anyone to vote for Mr. Kerry or defeat Mr. Bush. Much of the speech was a history of the civil rights movement in America.
The NAACP chairman said the threat by the IRS seems reminiscent of a case the government brought against the Christian Coalition in 1999. In a lawsuit, the Federal Election Commission accused the Christian Coalition of illegally aiding Republican candidates. But a federal judge threw out most of that lawsuit.
The NAACP's troubles with the IRS come as an anti-abortion group known as the Christian Defense Coalition fears the tax agency is barring it from leading prayers in churches that ask God to re-elect Mr. Bush.
Jim Henderson, senior counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice, which is representing the Christian Defense Coalition in the matter, said yesterday he has been told in phone interviews with IRS employees that they equate prayer on behalf of specific political candidates with political speech.
But, in order to prevent any misunderstanding, he said he has sent a letter to IRS officials, asking that they put the policy in writing.