Living Word church says it is fighting for all churches.
On its face, the case of the U.S. government vs. Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park seems like an esoteric argument over obscure issues in the tax code and the organizational chart of the Internal Revenue Service.
But attorneys for the church and its pastor, the Rev. Mac Hammond, argued in U.S. District Court on Thursday that the case is about the First Amendment, separation of church and state and the reach of the government into the actions of religious organizations.
Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes took the issue seriously enough to ask for more information from both parties. "It's an issue I could see moving a long way through the courts," he said.
The IRS has filed a petition in U.S. District Court to force the church to answer a demand for detailed financial information. The church declined to comply with an IRS summons in March, arguing that the request was overly broad, and that the law states the request must come from a "high-ranking official" of the IRS. The U.S. attorney's office then sued to force compliance.
Congress passed a law in 1969 designed to protect churches from zealous or politically motivated inquiries, Living Word's attorney Walter Pickard argued. That included a provision that any inquiry into a church be approved at a very high level.
The IRS has been reorganized since, and IRS attorney Robert Fey argued that the correct person properly ordered an examination of the church's finances.
The IRS is interested in compensation for Hammond and the details of a relationship in which the church bought a jet for the pastor and founder of Living Word, which he then leased back to the church at a profit. The deal was questioned by a Washington watchdog group.
Hammond originally drew attention to himself by endorsing now-U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann for Congress from the pulpit, which violates rules for tax-exempt organizations. He later apologized.
Hammond is a proponent of the "prosperity Gospel," which teaches that a life dedicated to Christ will result in spiritual and material riches for its members. He owns homes and property worth millions of dollars.
Pickard said the church was concerned about the potential for misuse of information about donors and members, as well as the broad net cast by the IRS inquiry into Hammond's personal finances.
"He clearly is a target," Pickard said.
Amy Rotenberg, another attorney representing Living Word, said the church is fighting the case for all religious organizations, not just itself.
"Living Word's position is that it's an unlawful government intrusion into the church," Rotenberg said. "The impact on all faith communities is quite significant."
The parties have two weeks to submit further information.
Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702