Issue of Tax Abuse by the Christian Right, Heats Up [UPDATED]
Last February, the Internal Revenue Service finally drew the line in the sand. After years of controversy, as the Christian Right sought to build a church-based electoral movement, bending and breaking the rules governing the activities of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organzations, the IRS announced a major education and enforcement program in the run up to the 2006 elections.
The IRS sought to make the matter as plain and simple 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."
The issue of tax abuse by tax exempt organizations, particularly churches promises to be a signficant issue over the next few elections. Ground zero in the battle is Ohio, where the Patriot Pastors project has been overtly backing Ohio Sectretary of State Ken Blackwell for governor in 2006. A group of non-Christian right clergy in Ohio have filed complaints about World Harvest Church and Fairfield Christian Church two churches centrally involved in the Ohio Patriot Pastors project, that they felt had way overstepped.
But that was just the beginning.
The Washington Post
has a featured story today, outlining the controversy in Ohio
Two complaints filed with the tax agency say that the large Columbus area churches, active in President Bush's narrow Ohio win in 2004, violated their tax-exempt status by pushing the candidacy of J. Kenneth Blackwell, who is the secretary of state and the favored candidate of Ohio's religious right.
The clergy members said the churches improperly held political activities and allowed Republican organizations to use their facilities.
The goal of the challenge is "for these churches to stop acting like electioneering organizations," said the Rev. Eric Williams, pastor of North Congregational United Church of Christ. "I don't want to harm or demonize these churches. I want these churches to act legally."
When three months passed without public evidence that the IRS had acted on a January complaint, the clergy members filed a second document, expanding the allegations.
"You have flagrant intervention continuing and no indication of IRS activity," said Marcus Owens, a lawyer for the group and former director of the IRS office that regulates tax-exempt organizations. He considers the evidence of wrongdoing "pretty overwhelming" and suspects favoritism, which tax agency officials deny.
... the targets of the tax complaint... called it "a campaign of harassment" before the May 2 primary....
Enforcement does not infringe on First Amendment rights to free speech, the Supreme Court has ruled, because the issue is not whether an organization's members can speak freely, but whether the government will subsidize its activities through a tax exemption.
Meanwhile, current issue of Church & State magazine also has an overview of the issue, by Robert Boston:
Efforts to build church-based political machines are also under way in Texas, Washington state, Kansas and other states.
In Kansas, the drive is spearheaded by two pastors, Joe Wright and Terry Fox, who are profiled in Religious Right leader James Dobson's Citizen magazine this month.
Wright and Fox mobilized around the issue of same-sex marriage and insist that their efforts are not partisan. But their hard-ball politicking over the issue had repercussions at the ballot box. As the Focus on the Family publication pointed out, "More than 40 liberal and moderate candidates lost their races to conservatives in the November elections" in 2004.
The two now plan to travel to other states to train other pastors.
"Their goal," Citizen reported, "is to identify at least two key pastors in each one who can mobilize hundreds of churches."
Critics of pulpit-based politicking find this trend troubling. Too often, they say, alleged "issue advocacy" becomes an excuse to intervene in an election.
Boston also has a related article which describes how a church-based electoral mobilization is ramping up in Pennsylvania on behalf of incumbent Sen Rick Santorum (R-PA). The focus of the article is training session at the National Christian Conference Center in Valley Forge, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Pastors Network.
Although described as a non-partisan outfit concerned about "traditional values," the effort looks to be yet another attempt to forge a church-based political machine to help elect or re-elect Republicans.
Such efforts are already well under way in Ohio and Texas, and the emergence of one in Pennsylvania, a pivotal swing state that voted "blue" in the past two presidential elections by narrow margins, may signal yet another Religious Right-led crusade to lure churches into partisan politics on behalf of the GOP.
The Keystone State project is an outgrowth of a group called Let Freedom Ring. Formed with money from multi-millionaire John M. Templeton, Jr., and fronted by right-wing activist Colin Hanna, Let Freedom Ring describes its goals in benign-sounding language: The organization, Hanna told the pastors, supports constitutional government, economic freedom and traditional values.
"Our goal is for the Pennsylvania Pastors Network to be a permanent structure that brings people of faith together who care about policy matters," he said.
Hanna noted that the event was co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, an affiliate of Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, the Pennsylvania Pro-life Federation and the Urban Family Council, a Philadelphia-ba
sed Religious Right group.
In Pennsylvania, Hanna said, the group hopes to add an amendment banning same-sex marriage to the state constitution and further restrict legal abortion.
Among the featured speakers was anti-abortion militant Fr. Frank Pavone, whose Priests for Life organization is increasingly engaged in election related political activities. It is also a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that may be blurring the line between exempt educational and proscribed partisan electoral activities:
"We are blessed to have a president who is able to and knows why he must and is convinced why he should nominate justices who don't invent rights out of thin air like Roe v. Wade did, but he needs a Senate, he needs a Senate.... He got the two nominees through that process precisely because there were not enough senators to support the ludicrous idea of a filibuster against a Supreme Court nominee. And the church of Jesus Christ, standing in midst of this culture of death and putting two and two together, has to conclude that we need to be part of the assurance that here in this particular place in this particular time this particular president needs the kind of support that he has today but might not necessarily have after November of 2006. [He] needs the kind of support that is necessary in order to get that additional common-sense pro-life justice on the court."
Boston's articles show that there is a high degree of cooperation and coordination among the various Christian Right groups in seeking to mobilize churches as insitutions in order to get their members to the polls. That they are willing to bend and even break the law to do so, is evident, and provides another arena of challenge the rule of law in the U.S. These operations are building on years of organizing and refinment of the Christian Right modus operandi. Even as organiations, such as the once mighty national Christian Coalition come and go, experienced activists and strategists create new organizations to take their place. The quote above from Chris Hanna is worth repeating: "Our goal is for the Pennsylvania Pastors Network to be a permanent structure...".
Update [2006-4-25 22:22:20 by Frederick Clarkson]:
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) alleging that a get-out-the-vote training session offered by the Pennsylvania Pastors Network (PPN) may have violated IRS rules governing charities.
The PPN is organized by four conservative organizations: Let Freedom Ring, the Pennsylvania Family Institute, the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, and the Urban Family Council. Let Freedom Ring is a §501(c)(4) organization and the Pro-Life Federation has §501(c)(4) and §501(c)(3) components, but the Pennsylvania Family Institute and the Urban Family Council are both §501(c)(3) organizations. IRS law explicitly prohibits §501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in political activities.
Hat Tip: Street Prophets