September 3, 2008

The WWW Giveth, and the WWW Taketh Away [10:38 am]

Well, with a little help, of course…. Pastors’ Web Electioneering Attracts U.S. Reviews of Tax Exemptions

Even as the increasing Web fluency of religious organizations has flung their doors wide to a new world of potential followers, it has also opened the gates for all to see what may have been intended only for the faithful in the pews. Now, I.R.S. investigators, as well as groups that monitor churches’ political activity, can do much of their work with a simple Google search, or a surfing of YouTube posts.

This year, several cases of possible electioneering by clerics have come to the federal government’s attention because of Webcasting. [...]

[...] Ms. Mathis, the agency’s spokeswoman, declined to discuss its investigative techniques, but said that cases springing from Web sites had raised new issues. If a cleric appears on his or her church’s Web page endorsing or attacking a candidate, she said, that is clearly no different from a sermon in the pulpit.

But links on the same page, to other sites connected directly or indirectly to partisan groups, are a more complicated matter. In one recent I.R.S. memo, the question is addressed with almost Talmudic intensity, urging enforcement agents to explore the issue of “electronic proximity — including the number of ‘clicks’ that separate the objectionable material from the 501(c)(3) organization’s Web site.”

“What is so fascinating here is that the Internet is instantaneous, and the government is slow,” said Frances R. Hill, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law who specializes in nonprofit tax law. “Whether this will speed the government up in the use of its authority remains to be seen. Clearly, what church groups used to spend a lot of time and money doing with voter guides they can now do in a rapid, cost-free way.”

Related: A new feature of Slate’s political coverage (working with versionista) — Changes They Can Believe In: How the Candidates Edited Their Web Pages Last Week

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