Yesterday I kvetched about a Baptist preacher in Texas, Robert Jeffress, who was apparently violating the U.S. government’s stricture against religious figures campaigning in an illegal way for and against Presidential candidates.
To retain their unconscionable tax-free status with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), U.S. churches and their pastors cannot engage in “official” political activity. The U.S. tax code for religious organizations says this:
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all IRC section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and religious 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. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise tax.
. . . for their organizations to remain tax exempt under IRC section 501(c)(3), religious leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions. To avoid potential attribution of their comments outside of church functions and publications, religious leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to clearly indicate that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.
Jeffress was, from the pulpit, urging his flock to vote against Obama and, later, for Mittens. I noted that this violated the tax laws, and wondered why his church wasn’t in trouble.
The answer is that the IRS isn’t even bothering to investigate such breaches. According to boston.com,
The IRS monitors religious and other nonprofits on everything from salaries to spending, and that oversight continues. However, Russell Renwicks, a manager in the IRS Mid-Atlantic region, recently said the agency had suspended audits of churches suspected of breaching federal restrictions on political activity. A 2009 federal court ruling required the IRS to clarify which high-ranking official could authorize audits over the tax code’s political rules. The IRS has yet to do so.
Dean Patterson, an IRS spokesman in Washington, said Renwicks, who examines large tax-exempt groups, ‘‘misspoke.’’ Patterson would not provide any specifics beyond saying that ‘‘the IRS continues to run a balanced program that follows up on potential noncompliance.’’
However, attorneys who specialize in tax law for religious groups, as well as advocacy groups who monitor the cases, say they know of no IRS inquiries in the past three years into claims of partisanship by houses of worship. IRS church audits are confidential, but usually become public as the targeted religious groups fight to maintain their nonprofit status.
. . . [Marcus ]Owens, who was with the IRS through 2000, said the agency had once initiated between 20 and 30 inquiries each year concerning political activity by churches or pastors. He said he knows of only two recent cases the IRS pursued against houses of worship or pastors, and neither involved complaints over partisan activity.
‘‘What the IRS is desperate to do is to avoid signaling to churches and pastors that there is no administrative oversight,’’ Owens said. ‘‘The IRS has been vigilant with regard to civil fraud and criminal cases, but those aren’t all that common.’’
The tax code allows a wide range of political activity by houses of worship, including speaking out on social issues and organizing congregants to vote. But churches cannot endorse a candidate or engage in partisan advocacy. The presidential election has seen a series of statements by clergy that critics say amount to political endorsements. Religious leaders say they are speaking about public policies, not candidates, and have every right to do so.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has recently taken out full-page ads in major newspapers, featuring a photo of renowned evangelist Billy Graham, urging Americans to vote along biblical principles. Graham met last month with Mitt Romney and pledged to do ‘‘all I can’’ to help the Republican presidential nominee.
A November 5 editorial in the Los Angeles Times recounts a number of flagrant violations of the tax code. Here’s just one:
- In Peoria, Ill., Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky ordered priests in his diocese to read a letter to parishioners the Sunday before the election criticizing “the president” for including contraception in his health insurance mandate. Jenky then warned that “Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord.” He ended with this appeal: “I therefore call upon every practicing Catholic in this diocese to vote. Be faithful to Christ and to your Catholic faith.”
Not only are churches flouting the law, but they’re boasting about flouting it:
. . . And last month, dozens of churches participated in the fifth “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” sponsored by the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom. Participants were invited to preach about “what Scripture says about the selection of our national, state, or local leaders.” Some preachers sent their sermons to the IRS, essentially daring the agency to investigate them. The alliance boasts that none of those pastors has been punished or censored by the IRS.
If churches are to be given tax exemptions (i.e., no property tax, tax-free housing allowances for ministers), then they can’t engage in political activity. To do so constitutes a government subsidy of religious incursion into politics. The reason the IRS is sitting on its hands is obviously a policy decision from the top, maybe even involving Obama, although that would be strange because political activity by churches usually favors Republicans. As we know, though, Obama is distressingly friendly to religion.
The IRS should stop turning its head away from this stuff. Of course, if America was really serious about the separation of church and state, we wouldn’t be giving such tax exemptions in the first place.