The IRS Is Toothless: Churches Will Continue To Freely Meddle In Politics

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As Wendy Gittleson from Addicting Info and Brian Tashman at Right Wing Watch have discussed, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, Illinois, Thomas John Paprocki, recently issued a video which hints that any of Paprocki’s flock who support the Democratic Party are “endorsing instrinsic evils” whereas nothing in the Republican Party platform is “a serious sin.” To be fair, not all Catholics agree with this, and many religious people could quote from the Bible at length where, if you wish to be truly God-fearing and devout, caring for the poor, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, giving away all your wealth, loving thy neighbor as much as you love yourself, offering succor and being hospitable to strangers and the needy, and being without sin or flaw before condemning other people are all Christian values. Some even argue that the Bible is not concerned with the ‘personhood’ or value of of fetuses or infants less than a month old. This makes trying to use the Bible as a defense for anti-choice activism a bit dicey at best (and not just because the United States is not — yet — a theocracy, and not all Americans are religious).

You really have to wonder what, exactly, tax-exempt religious institutions have to do to lose their tax-exempt status. Since we supposedly have a Separation of Church and State in the United States (a notion which, sadly, becomes more and more laughable every day), and since it has been part of the Internal Revenue Code since 1954 that religious institutions are not supposed to do any political campaigning, support any candidates, or issue voting ‘suggestions’ to their congregations concerning political issues, we all think that there are (and should be) serious consequences for religious institutions that bend the rules. Yet, as we all are aware, the IRS is notoriously loath to lower the boom on even the most political churches and sects. Why else is Pastor Terry Jones allowed to hang Obama in effigy (with only the mildest “I’m just kidding!” postscript on a homemade sign nearby), burn Korans, whip up a frenzy over an anti-Islam film he may not have even seen, and still maintain his church’s tax-exempt status? How else did the Moral Majority exert such a strong influence on American politics (an effect that lingers today, best seen in the corrosive effect of the Tea Party on the GOP, and in religious leaders invited to speak as pundits on news shows), with Jerry Falwell going so far as to meet with President Reagan to complain about a “too liberal” Sandra Day O’Connor being nominated for SCOTUS?


The problem is that churches know the IRS has more bark than bite. Their political sermons and support for a particular candidate, political party, or item of legislation grow more and more blatant and aggressive every year. This is why we’re seeing the Mormon church vigorously supporting California’s Proposition 8, in order to (temporarily?) shut down any marriage equality measures for non-straight people in the state of California. The fact that Mormons seek to legislate defining ‘marriage’ as the legal union of one man and one woman, despite their history of polygamy, is ironic. As are the Catholics‘ insistence that hospitals, medical professionals, and pharmacists should be able to deny medical procedures and prescriptions to people in need, based on their personal religious beliefs. Worse, the remedies available to the IRS for punishing transgressors — and there aren’t many — are toothless, and church leaders know it.

Everyday folks “know” that churches supposedly lose tax-exempt status for political meddling. Some people express surprise and concern to learn that cults (like Scientology) are allowed to avoid paying taxes, but the everyday person still thinks that the IRS is capable of enforcing this rule. If they are capable, they are doing a poor job: the IRS’ (in)actions imply that if they are able to enforce these rules, they typically choose to turn a blind eye. In other words, don’t expect these churches and religious figureheads to suffer any punishment whatsoever.

WordOut.net (which appears to be promoting evangelical political proselytizing and which also has a FOX News ticker running on their site) just comes right out and says it: “From 1954 to the present, only one church has ever lost its IRS tax-exempt letter ruling [not quite accurate, but this is what they are telling their audience], but even that church did not lose its tax-exempt status for opposing then-Governor Bill Clinton for President in 1992.” In other words, they appear to be saying that it is worth defying the IRS guidelines and being as political as you want to be, because so few churches have ever been inconvenienced when doing so, and the punishment — if any — is a mere slap on the wrist.
When Lyndon Baines Johnson ran for Senate, he was opposed by a non-profit organization (not a church, to be clear) but he won his election anyway. He then proposed legislation to change the Internal Revenue Code to specifically prohibit non-profit organizations (which included churches) from supporting or opposing candidates for public office and the Code was duly amended in 1954. As WordOut.net explains:

The Church at Pierce Creek, located in Binghamton, New York (a church […] Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry attended at the time), took out full-page ads in the USA Today and The Washington Times newspapers. The ads opposed Governor Clinton for President because of his position[s] on abortion and homosexuality, and then the ads solicited “tax-deductible donations” to defray the cost of the advertisements. The Church received hundreds of contributions.

After Clinton was elected President, the IRS notified the Church on November 20, 1992, that it intended to conduct an inquiry into the Church’s activities. After negotiations with the Church broke down, the IRS revoked the Church’s tax-exempt letter ruling and the Church filed suit [with the help of Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice] to get it back. [What this means is that with this IRS letter, individuals could make tax-deductible gifts to the church, not that the church would be forced to pay taxes for ignoring the Code. Without it, there was still little chance that an individual giving money to the church and claiming it as a charitable deduction on their tax forms would be audited and not permitted to take that deduction.] The court noted that “because of the unique treatment churches receive under the Internal Revenue Code, the impact of the revocation is likely to be more symbolic than substantial.”

During the oral argument, counsel for the IRS confirmed that if the church chose not to intervene in future political campaigns, it [could] continue to [act as] a tax-exempt organization and receive all the benefits of that status. The court also pointed out that revocation of the IRS letter ruling did not make the Church liable for the payment of taxes. […] Other than the Church at Pierce Creek, no other church has even lost its tax-exempt letter ruling, let alone its tax-exempt status. In other words, from 1954 to the present, no church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for endorsing or opposing political candidates. This history alone should alleviate unfounded fear. […] In summary, while liberal groups seek to silence pastors and churches, I would encourage pastors to throw off their muzzle and pick up a megaphone. It’s time pastors and churches became the moral conscience of the community.

It should come as no surprise when churches give the middle finger to the IRS and do whatever the heck they feel like doing, up to and including campaigning hard for or against a politician or a particular item of legislation. I suspect that politicians have their hands tied further because of the power churches have in the United States: even though there is “no political test” required to run for or hold office, seven states prohibit atheists from holding political office (to be fair, these are laws on the state-level that — if any atheist with political aspirations ever decided to challenge them, and if the case landed in a higher court — would probably be deemed unconstitutional), and President Obama’s religion became a hot topic, with conservatives in particular trying to exploit ignorance and intolerance to claim that Obama, a Christian, was actually a Muslim.

It would have to be a very ballsy politician indeed who would boldly face down the churches and demand a more aggressive enforcement of the Internal Revenue Code; he or she would likely be vigorously opposed and condemned from the smallest, humblest pulpits to the most powerful 24-hour cable televangelist networks, with that politician’s political opponents chiming in to stir the pot. The churches, feeling smugly secure that they can get away with almost any amount of political interference (because history shows them that this is true!), might go so far as to call that brave politician ‘evil’ or claim that s/he was the Antichrist. Why not? It isn’t as if the IRS is going to DO anything about it, are they?

Unfortunately, few churches and religious organizations have been content to abide by the Internal Revenue Code. Many have attempted to evade the rules, either secretly or very openly, which means that churches, religious leaders, and religious groups participate actively in political campaigns and weigh in on pending legislation (urging their congregations to vote on way or the other) while retaining their charitable tax-exempt status.

As Austin Kline explains:

One of the earliest (and only) cases where a religious group had to be sanctioned by the IRS involved Christian Echoes National Ministry. Founded in 1951 by Dr. Billy James Hargis, it engaged in a wide range of political activity, all the way up to endorsing Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. That year the IRS revoked their tax-exempt status, an action which was affirmed by the Tenth Circuit Court in 1972.

For the most part, however, the IRS has done little in reaction to religious organizations which have crossed the line into explicit political advocacy. In 1980, the abortion-rights group Abortion Rights Mobilization had to sue the IRS to try and get them to take action against the Roman Catholic Church over the fact that many parishes had openly endorsed anti-abortion political candidates for office. The case was dismissed on procedural grounds and its merits were never ruled upon.

In 1991, the IRS investigated Jimmy Swaggart and found that he was guilty of violating IRS rules because he had twice endorsed Pat Robertson for president. There was no fine, the tax-exempt status of his ministry was unaffected, and all he was asked to do was sign a pledge not to do it ever again. After that, however, the IRS seemed to start acting a bit more proactively.

In 1993, the IRS investigated Jerry Falwell and found that his Old Time Gospel Hour had illegally funneled money towards a political action committee which, in turn, had given money to conservative political candidates. This time, there was a $50,000 fine and the tax-exempt status for the organization was revoked retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987, the time when the violations occurred. […] That’s all. IRS oversight when it comes to churches engaging in political activity does not appear to have much force.

As you can see, Kline’s information contradicts WordOut.net’s confident assertion that “only one” church was ever investigated and punished (if you can even call it a punishment), but WordOut.net is right about one thing: the penalties were almost all mild and caused little inconvenience to the churches. The churches apparently figure that they might as well be as political as they want to be, since their revenue stream is unlikely to be cut off by the IRS for their political activism, no matter how blatant it is. Nothing is going to happen to them, beyond — maybe — a slap on the wrist. It is probably up to the general public to challenge this, and since the majority of the general public (about 70%) claim to be religious (and almost 80% say they favor some flavor of Christianity), and since the worst offenders tend to be Christian churches, I would not advise holding your breath.

 


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