Should the IRS Rule with a Heavier Hand?
DonByrd printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Feb 01, 2007 at 02:09:49 PM EST
I think we've all been concerned in recent years to watch churches more and more become the playground of campaigns and partisan political agendas. We've seen organized efforts by the GOP to partner with ministers in rounding up church directories to use in mailing lists and phone banks; the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family continue to distribute biased voter guides to church-goers; organizations of pastors like the Ohio Restoration Project actively seek ways to deliver their collective congregations as a voting bloc. And in the 2006 elections, the brazen use of the church for electoral ends gave us such events as the explicit endorsement of Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann from a Minnesota pulpit, the filming of a political ad in a Tennessee sanctuary, the leaking of a campaign's "church strategy" to exploit congregation networks for votes in a state-wide race in Kansas, and the fairly explicit comparison of one candidate to Jesus and the other to Barrabas from the pulpit on election Sunday in Maryland (guess which candidate was in the pews that morning?).

Indications are that when the IRS releases its report of the most recent elections, the number of church electioneering investigations and violations will have increased from 2004, this despite the agency's efforts to call more attention to churches' tax-exempt responsibilities not to engage in political activity. So what should be done to curb this apparent up-slope in illegal church politicking? US News and World Report editor Dan Gilgoff (who also has a new book coming about the religious right) thinks the IRS should begin revoking tax-exempt status. I'm not so sure. Read on.

Cross-posted at the Baptist Joint Committee Blog:

Earlier this week, Melissa Rogers pointed to this week's On Religion column in USAToday, written by Dan Gilgoff, the senior editor at US News and World Report. He believes the IRS needs to enforce the church politicking regulations with more teeth.

American taxpayers should be concerned about the IRS enforcement vacuum: Tax exemptions for non-profit groups were never intended to offer tax relief to partisan political advocacy.

By failing to enforce the 1954 rule, however, that's exactly what the IRS is doing. The agency has concluded investigations into complaints filed against 40 churches in the 2004 election cycle. Though so-called "political intervention" (IRS-speak for actions that violate its prohibitions on backing or opposing candidates) was substantiated in all but three cases, not a single house of worship saw its tax-exempt status revoked. Instead, the IRS wrote advisories, warning citations that carry no punishment, or assessed excise taxes, the equivalent of light fines, on those churches.

The IRS justifies this slap-on-the-wrist approach by claiming that it wants to bring churches into compliance with IRS rules rather than punish them.

Of course I want the rules against electioneering to be enforced, but Gilgoff's demands here may be ignoring some real concerns. The IRS walks a very fine line in investigating the activities of churches - and well they should. How wide a berth do we want to give them in determining which speech is religious? And how much punishment should we demand for a single statement uttered in a single Sunday service, even if a clear and flagrant violation? Do we want to revoke an entire congregation's tax-exempt status for the momentary indiscretion of its minister?

Those are honest questions, not rhetorical ones. If you read the BJC blog, you know that I take those violations seriously and consider them to be not just a crossing of important church-state provisions but questionable religious practice as well. I'm especially wary of broad attempts by tax-exempt religious organizations to effect large numbers of voters through their churches. But I'm also concerned about the implications of an arm of government having churches in its crosshairs and more than willing to offer extreme punishment. The more openly we sanction and empower the government to intimidate and investigate church activity, the more our climate of religious freedom will suffer.

Regulating churches is something the government should do very carefully. Those of us who believe in church-state separation from a perspective of faith should continue to educate congregations and ministers on both the legal and religious reasons to avoid electioneering from the pulpit. And efforts to exert public pressure on groups that would exploit churches for political purposes will continue to play an important role. But I tend to think the slap-on-the-wrist, educational approach of the IRS is appropriate in most cases.  I'm interested in your reaction. Do you believe the IRS needs to start ruling with a heavier hand, especially if, as Gilgoff suggests, violations are increasing? What activities, if any, should prompt the revocation of tax-exempt status?

over electoral activities.  The IRS rightfully doesn't want to go nuclear on churuches that make minor errors. But the religous right has taken the inch of flexibility and taken it a mile, and keeps pushing. This past year, with plenty of public notice and briefings by IRS staff to regional groupings of tax attorneys and many other means, the agency has sought to clarify the rules, educate those affected, depoliticize the process, and model fair enforcement.  

It will be interesting to see the results.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Feb 01, 2007 at 05:24:20 PM EST

The IRS goes overboard in going after poor folks to get every last cent (and assigns huge penalties for the tiniest math error), but they ignore flagrant abuses like I've read about here.

Hegemony and dominionism go hand in hand.

by ArchaeoBob on Fri Feb 02, 2007 at 10:25:28 AM EST

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