IRS to Vigorously Enforce Rules on Church Politicking
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 05:52:46 AM EST
The IRS is making big news in annoucing the results of a comprehensive review of complaints of illegal electoral activity by non-profit, tax-exempt organizations, including churches, during the 2004 election season. Although the agency was scrupulously neutral in how it presented it's findings from the period leading up to the 2004 elections, and it's planned educational and enforcement activities for 2006, it stated as simply and plainly as possible:
"...all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."

This is certainly bad news for the Christian Right, which has encouraged churches to bend if not break the rules proscribing electoral activities by non-profit, tax-exempt groups.

According to a report by the Associated Press:
IRS exams found that nearly 3 out of 4 churches, charities, and other civic groups suspected of having violated restraints on political activity in the 2004 election did so, the agency said yesterday.

Most of the examinations that have concluded found a single, isolated incidence of prohibited campaign activity.

In three cases, however, the Internal Revenue Service uncovered violations egregious enough to recommend revoking the groups' tax-exempt status.

The majority of charities and churches followed the law, but the examinations found a ''disturbing" amount of political intervention in the 2004 elections, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said.

''It's disturbing not because it's pervasive, but because it has the potential to really grow and have a very bad impact on the integrity of charities and churches," Everson said in an interview.

The agency, recognizing that these issues are likely to be coming up in ever greater numbers as the 2006 election seasons comes into full swing, has issued a detailed set of guidelines of what is and is not permissible as part of a stepped up education and enforcement effort going into the 2006 campaign season.  Here is an excerpt:

The Prohibition on Political Campaign Intervention

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.  The prohibition applies to all campaigns including campaigns at the federal, state and local level.  Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.  Those section 501(c)(3) organizations that are private foundations are subject to additional restrictions that are not described in this fact sheet.

What is Political Campaign Intervention?

Political campaign intervention includes any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidates for public office.  The prohibition extends beyond candidate endorsements.  Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of an organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition on political campaign intervention.   Distributing statements prepared by others that favor or oppose any candidate for public office will also violate the prohibition.   Allowing a candidate to use an organization's assets or facilities will also violate the prohibition if other candidates are not given an equivalent opportunity.   Although section 501(c)(3) organizations may engage in some activities to promote voter registration, encourage voter participation, and provide voter education, they will violate the prohibition on political campaign intervention if they engage in an activity that favors or opposes any candidate for public office.  Certain activities will require an evaluation of all the facts and circumstances to determine whether they result in political campaign intervention.  

Voter Education, Voter Registration and Get Out the Vote Drives

Section 501(c)(3) organizations are permitted to conduct certain voter education activities (including the presentation of public forums and the publication of voter education guides)  if they are carried out in a non-partisan manner.  In addition, section 501(c)(3) organizations may encourage people to participate in the electoral process through voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives,  conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities conducted in a biased manner that favors (or opposes) one or more candidates is prohibited.

This, and other resources  available on the IRS web site should help those concerned about the abuse of the tax-code to determine what is and is not, in fact, a violation.

These resources may take on added importance in light of recent Republican efforts to obtain church membership directories in North Carolina, and similar efforts by the Bush/Cheney campaign in 2004, according to a report by the Interfaith Alliance.

Meanwhile, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and Statethe results of the IRS investigation

..."proves that the IRS intends to fully enforce the law barring houses of worship from intervening in political campaigns," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Pastors tempted to follow the Religious Right's siren song into partisan activity need to sit up and take notice."

Continued Lynn, "Churches have no business becoming cogs in a candidate's political machine. It damages the integrity of the church, and it violates federal tax law. This report indicates that the IRS takes allegations of violations seriously."

In 1996, Americans United launched "Project Fair Play," an effort to educate religious leaders about IRS regulations governing politicking. As part of that effort, AU reports egregious violations of the law to the IRS. The organization reported 11 houses of worship and other religious non-profits in 2004.

The IRS report notes that of 132 cases examined, 82 are closed. In three cases, revocation of tax-exempt status was proposed. In 55 cases, the non-profits were issued written warnings. In one case, the IRS applied an excise tax.

Activities examined included the distribution of fliers promoting certain candidates, candidate endorsements from pulpits, churches displaying candidate signs and churches improperly permitting candidates to seek votes during church appearances.

"This report should lay to rest Religious Right claims that houses of worship have a right to engage in partisan politicking," said Lynn. "They don't, and any that ignore the law and do so anyway could face severe sanctions."

See the comment thread on Psyche's diary .

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 06:20:04 AM EST

On NPR's coverage last night there was a suggestion by someone from the RR that if the IRS really started trying to enforce the rule, there'd be a legislative political response freeing churches from this restriction.  That is a frightening though.  

by montpellier on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 01:24:15 PM EST
and so far, it hasn't worked.  

The IRS has little choice but to enforce the rule. It has made a big public show of cracking down and made its position clear as a bell to the media.

This came shortly on the heels of the blatantly public flauntings of tax code violations by Rod Parsley and his cronies in Ohio, and the complaint filed by other religious leaders in the state.

If we are going to have a non-profit tax code in the U.S., we can't have groups of people running around claiming that the law doesn't apply to them, or inventing interpretations of convenience for purposes of funneling tax-exempt resources into electoral campaigns.  

The situation not only undermines public confidence in the tax system, but in the integrity of elections --which have suffered quite a bit in recent years for other reasons.

Nevertheless, I think we will see a lot of grandstanding by the religious right and their allies in Congress.

The religious right has gotten away with quite a bit over quite a long period of time and are used to getting their way.

The integrity of the tax code and the electoral system is now in the spotlight.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 01:58:05 PM EST

although I was disheartened to hear that the initial target seemed to be the Episcopal(?) Church in Pasadena(?) - basically a 'left leaning' progressive church - on rather weak grounds.  I mean, it's kind of like 'cracking down' on jaywalkers while ignoring the gangsters.  But, given the political climate, I'm not surprised.

I was simply wondering if anyone thought the grandstanding would ultimately be politically successful.  The stance is not dissimilar from the reframing of 'religious freedom' they'd like to see: a very broad interpretation where all activity or speech in the name of any religious goal is protected unless disparate/disproportionate injury to some other party can be shown.  Ie, it's part of my creed to try to change the government here on earth - therefore any restriction on this activity imposed by congress is discriminatory.  I wouldn't be surprised to see the GOP protect their GOTV organization.  

I definitely agree: these guys should not be engaging in any of these activities and keep their tax-exempt status.  Indeed, to the extent that the mega-church phenomenon is really a business approach founded on the big-box model, I wouldn't mind seeing their tax status revoked anyway. Since I'm of a mind to read/interpret the establishment clause broadly, I wonder why it is that Churches automatically qualify to begin with - I'd prefer to see regulations in place that limit their exemptions to qualified activities.  For example, the oft-cited social services they provide to the community.  This is probably unworkably complex and would have unintended implications for other non-political and secular organizations.  However, such an approach would alter the enforcement mechanism: the organizations would have to provide supporting evidence for whatever they claim rather than relying on complaints about non-qualifying activities. I doubt most parishoners/congregants would be disposed to blow the whistle, and who else is watching?

Certainly the CEOs of these institutions ought to be carefully audited and taxed on every cent of compensation.  I realize it's a bit uncharitable or ugly, but I suspect there are far more Elmer Gantrys among the "RR" who simply smell an opportunity to fleece the flock.

by montpellier on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 02:37:15 PM EST

was vastly overplayed at the time.

It was not surprising that there was a complaint filed against the church -- since the sermon in question was done within 60 days of a federal election and given big play in the LA Times. That it didn't come to anything in the end is no surprise, since anyone who knows about this arcane area of law and regs, knows that it was a pretty flimsy  case.

That the church in question publicized the matter, played into the hands of the religious right -- that immediately seized on the issue and sided with the Episcopal Church.  

Of course the IRS had to investigate and of course there would be a minor consequence at most. They were dealing with far more egregious cases -- almost all, I am sure, from the religious right.  

But in the end, I think it was also the IRS's lucky day when someone filed a complaint against a progressive Episcopal Church and the church was silly enough to publicize it and claim government persecution.

In America, we call it even-handed enforcement of the law.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 02:47:32 PM EST

The case of the IRS investigating the Pasadena Episcopal Church got attention for many reasons.  Of course leftists were outraged about a seemingly minor infraction compared with the gross violations of some Right-wing churches; it sure plays like another case of IOKIYAR (it's OK if you're a Republican).  

The case also raises a real challenge to pastors in preaching the gospel.  Especially when one considers that this is an Episcopal Church and Episcopalians usually preach the lectionary.  When a pastor wrestles with the scriptures assigned for a given Sunday, the pastor has to be open to what the Spirit's message from the text for the particular congregation is for that day.  Sometimes the lectionary texts call for a prophetic message (the Biblical Prophets often called the King to account).  So the challenge to a pastor -- if one believes that a lectionary text calls one to preach a sermon criticizing an elected official (especially within 60 days of an election) -- would be whether to soft-pedal (or distort) the lectionary or to pick another passage of scripture to preach on, if one doesn't want to risk having a church's non-profit status challenged.  

by Rusty Pipes on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 07:52:31 PM EST

that requires an institution, religious or otherwise to be a non-profit, tax-exempt organization.
Anyone who wants to enjoy the priviledges of tax exemption, has gotta play by the same rules as everyone else. If they don't, they risk the consequences.  

Progressives were wrong about the Episcopal Church situation, in my view, and I said so in media interviews, including one with journalist Paul Rosenberg which was discussed in the early days of this site.

There is nothing new in the IRS statement.

The main difference between now and the past is that the IRS has made it clear that they intend to enforce what in the past has been, IMO, an exceedingly lax enforcement of perfectly reasonable rules. But times have changed.

That said, I am sure that clergy of all sorts can manage to find ways to express themselves and live within the unambiguous letter of the law -- as Jesus taught regarding learning to distinguish between their relationship with Ceasar and their relationship with God.  Different times, require different approaches.

My recommendation is that people get a grip. There is no evidence that this is a case of government persecution of anyone, and there is nothing here that they cannot live with, and infact have already been living with.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 08:41:04 PM EST

Mr. Clarkson,

I detect a note of anguish/frustration on your part with the Episcopal Church story - I just want to say, I think your points are spot on - my questions are just looking for elucidation, and I appreciate you taking the time.

I did have a fleeting thought along the lines you mention: that any success the Episcopals had in fighting this off would quickly be copied/raised by the RR.  I honestly thought that's why they were picked in the first place.  I was unaware of the history of the controversy - I'm a Right Coaster, so I didn't hear about it until it became a national story.  I was deeply dismayed that the IRS would be starting with a liberal church, given the egregiousness

I think you're right: equal protection (enforcement) of the laws ought to apply in our country.  100%.  There are ways of preaching a message (delivering a homily) on the values and theology that apply to any particular policy issue one wants - in ways that lead thinking or inform analysis which are in turn left up to the listener to complete* - without naming names or specifics relating to any campaign.  

*I don't believe this critical thinking , individual/independent analysis model is in operation in most RR churches - it's basically the antithesis of ecclesiastic textual authority as practiced by self-labelled 'literalists.'

Again, thanks for taking the time to do all you do on this issue broadly; even more so for taking time to respond here.  

by montpellier on Sun Feb 26, 2006 at 03:03:52 PM EST

one thing to keep in mind is that the IRS did not initiate this. The sermon in question was reported in the LA Times -- and someone complained to the IRS, which responded with an investigation. The church has not been subject to any sanctions.

The IRS has received many complaints about churches violating the non-profit tax rules, over the years. Few publicize it, and most are settled quietly.

All Saints decided to make their case high profile, so that is the one case people who do not follow these things have heard about, and it plays into their fears about government persecution.  

So yes, the matter is troubling to me for many reasons.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Feb 28, 2006 at 04:08:03 AM EST

You just have to understand. An early rumble.

Suspect these guys know they're going to be in trouble if the IRS cracks down.

by Psyche on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 06:04:16 PM EST

that's why they have repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, sought to get IRS limits on church political activity lifted in Congress.

All this has been building for a long time.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 07:26:13 PM EST

I'm in the adjacent district - I am not surprised by this.  

I think it's quite important to re-take the congress - I think the far-right is well aware they are cresting, and would be disposed to push such a measure through to protect their GOTV organizing structure.  

What is the court history on these restrictions?  Given the current court's precedent that 'money is speech', I wonder if a challenge could be mounted?  

by montpellier on Sun Feb 26, 2006 at 03:09:59 PM EST

I was interested that there was so much response to your post on this material at Kos.

Also interested in the paranoia/cynicism of some commenters about the IRS - that it would selectively go after liberal churches. Tend to agree with you that these are mostly civil servants who are likely to be neutral (and plod along in their own slow bureaucratic way, I might add).

However, this administration has been know to exert pressure from above and, at least in some circumstances, a bit of skepticism might be warranted. Josh Marshall has an interesting post on an instance of alleged pressure.

by Psyche on Mon Feb 27, 2006 at 10:01:41 PM EST

I would be fine being skeptical of just about anything.

But in this instance the absurd level of conpspiracy theory based on less than no evidence needed to be addressed head on.

Also note that all the cognitive dissonance and acting out comes from people who are looking for reasons not to become informed or to take action of any kind.

This kind of thinking, posing as progressivism, is actually deeply reactionary, and as I repeatedly pointed out in the comment thread, plays directly into the hands of the Christian Right.  

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Feb 27, 2006 at 11:40:03 PM EST

They sure haven't come up in a world that inspires a lot of trust in government.

by Psyche on Tue Feb 28, 2006 at 02:03:35 AM EST
on the ages of the commenters, although you may very well be right.

What I do see is a fairly standard kind of acting out on the part of people whose beliefs are being challenged in this general area; not just in terms of what the government might do/has done and why; but what they and their allies can do; and what they can and should actually know in they wish to function politically these days.

I think what we were seeing, as much as the young and the restless, was the ignorant and the proud.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Feb 28, 2006 at 03:11:55 AM EST

...generally if you speak to government employees outside of, say, the legislative or executive branches most of them cannot stand the current administration.

(Yes, I speak with some authority here.  I formerly worked at the US Census Bureau, which receives the second smallest amount of funding for any government agency even though it is one of the few government agencies whose existence is actually mandated by the Constitution itself.  (Only the National Endowment for the Arts receives less money.)

(Pretty much ALL of the employees talked about how things had been better under Clinton--not just as far as working conditions (things like, oh, the Census Bureau not having enough money to promote what will be a long term replacement for the "long form"--they've split the old "long form" into a dedicated survey that will be sent every five years to American households (and one out of every five households a year) but having gotten plenty of funding for the Decennial census) but as far as how the very people they were performing censuses on were faring.  

(Yes, we actually got to see the consequences of dominionist policies.  Partly seeing how people in general are doing worse in the country, but also partly in that one of the big concerns of people filling out Census forms now is if the Department of Homeland Security was going to use anything they put on the forms against them.  (Formerly we mostly had to worry from "tinfoil hat" folks into what is delicately referred to as the "tax protester" militia movement and occasionally from illegal aliens who were worried that if they filled out a census form that they would be turned into INS.  And that was just in 2002-2003; I hate to see how it must be now for my fellow co-workers what with the revelations about abuse of government info.)

As it is, part of why I eventually bailed was because I wasn't sure that I could truthfully tell people that we couldn't even reveal personal identifying info to the President (technically--at least how the Census Bureau regs used to be written--we WOULD legally have to refuse the President; people's personally identifying info is permanently embargoed from release in most Census forms (and embargoed for 70 years with the decennial census) and yes, you can technically go to Leavenworth if someone's Census form goes public before the embargo on release ends).  I don't really trust the government not to break the law on that end, so I had a bit of a moral crisis.  Between that and major burnout, I ended up leaving.  I can only imagine how rough it is for folks now there.

But yes, I can tell you that at least in the Census Bureau people hated dominionists and Bush with a passion there.

by dogemperor on Tue Feb 28, 2006 at 10:51:21 AM EST

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