Two-thirds of the money donated by churches to political campaigns will be returned - a sum that was buoyed yesterday when three more elected officials vowed to refund thousands in religious contributions.
Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who had received more from churches than any other Maryland candidate, said yesterday he will refund about 80 contributions that total about $16,000.
"The law is the law - though I don't agree with it - and must be honored," Burns said in a statement yesterday. "In no way do I wish to compromise the tax-exempt status of my base of support."
The contributions to be returned include $500 donated to Burns from the Woodlawn church where he is pastor.
Burns, City Council President Sheila Dixon and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson - all Democrats - are the latest officials who have agreed to return contributions made to their campaigns by churches. Church contributions to political campaigns are prohibited by the Internal Revenue Service.
The announcements follow an analysis published in The Sun last month that found that more than 100 churches throughout Maryland have made campaign contributions since 2000. About 190 donations were made and, as of yesterday, elected officials had promised to return 128 of them.
On Friday, Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, was the first to say she would give back about $2,000 in church contributions. This week, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, followed suit.
Burns was by far the biggest beneficiary of religious donations, according to The Sun's analysis. Burns and church leaders previously said that most of the contributions came from banquets he held at Martin's West, a Woodlawn catering hall.
Phone calls to two churches that gave heavily to Burns were not returned yesterday.
Dixon, meanwhile, also will refund political money she received from churches, according to her spokesman, Chris Williams.
"She does intend to give back that money," Williams said. "She doesn't want to jeopardize any of the faith-based organizations that do good work in this town."
Dixon received about 13 contributions, totaling $1,340 according to the analysis, though Williams and Burns said they are working to independently verify how much will be returned.
Though the contributions are not illegal to receive, they can threaten the tax-exempt status of churches that give them. Individual parishioners and pastors are allowed to give to campaigns as long as the money does not come from church accounts.
That was a distinction Burns stressed in his statement yesterday.
"I am pleased that individual pastors and individual members will continue to be legally and correctly able to support the work I do in the future," said Burns, who has argued that the law should be changed to allow churches to give directly.
Churches "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign," according to a brochure published by the IRS that summarizes the tax code for churches.
In one case, Cecil County Sheriff Barry A. Janney Sr., a Republican, marked a $2,000 raffle he won at a church event as a contribution. Janney said he deposited the money into his campaign account because he originally purchased tickets to the event with campaign cash - money that had been donated by other supporters.
Still, Janney said yesterday he will talk with leaders of the Immaculate Conception Church in Elkton about the money and will follow their advice.
Shailender Gupta, treasurer of Johnson's campaign, said that the Prince George's official would also return the money.
The refunds represent about 66 percent of the more than $33,000 that The Sun identified as having been donated by churches in recent years. When candidates who are no longer in office are taken out of the equation, the refunds represent more than 75 percent of all church money given.
Churches that give to candidates can face revocation of their tax-exempt status or a 10 percent excise tax on the contributions. An IRS spokesman did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.