The Internal Revenue Service said yesterday that it continues to investigate more than 60 tax-exempt organizations — including about 20 churches — of accusations of engaging in improper political activities concerning the 2004 presidential election.
The IRS first revealed that it was probing the groups last year, and it was not clear yesterday whether disciplinary action has been taken, or will be taken, against any of them.
“Federal law prohibits us from discussing specific cases or even confirming them,” said Bruce I. Friedland, a spokesman for the service, who declined to identify any of the groups beyond saying that about a third are churches.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the IRS had warned a prominent liberal church in Los Angeles that it could lose its tax-exempt status because of an anti-war sermon a guest preacher gave on the eve of the 2004 election.
Mr. Friedland refused to comment on the development, which reportedly involved a sermon that did not explicitly urge parishioners of All Saints Episcopal Church to support President Bush or Sen. John Kerry, but was critical of the war in Iraq and Mr. Bush’s tax cuts.
Speaking only generally about IRS guidelines, Mr. Friedland said tax-exempt organizations, including charity groups, educational institutions and churches, are “prohibited from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”
The rules are based on a 1954 federal statute that allows such organizations to comment on political issues, but bars them from endorsing or raising money for a political party or specific candidate.
“Even activities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria violates the political campaign prohibition,” Mr. Friedland said.
He said that in 2004, the IRS established a committee of tax law experts who selected more than 60 cases against tax-exempt groups that “merited further examination.”
However, because the IRS does not speak about specific cases, it is unknown how many times the rules have been enforced against tax-exempt groups.
Perhaps the most high-profile case of recent years centered on the service’s rejection of an application for tax-exempt status by the conservative Christian Coalition in 1999.
In 2000, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously ruled that the IRS did not violate the First Amendment rights of a New York church that it had stripped of its tax-exempt status for buying anti-Bill Clinton newspaper ads before the 1992 presidential election.
However, political observers said that although tax-exempt groups might be subjected to minor punishments by the IRS — such as being forced to admit they were wrong or to promise not to engage in future political activity — it is rare that the service ever fully strips tax-exempt status.