For entirely too long now, many churches have been engaging in political action despite laws prohibiting them from doing so while enjoying a tax-exempt status. While we have seen this on the more liberal side of politics as well, the majority of this seems to be coming from evangelical, right-wing Christian groups like the Christian Coalition or Focus On The Family. Fortunately, that could be about to change thanks to a settlement on July 17th from a lawsuit brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation against the IRS, for failing to enforce rules against churches being involved in political activities.
FFRF filed suit against the IRS shortly after the presidential election in 2012, based on the agency’s reported enforcement moratorium, as evidenced by open and notorious politicking by churches. Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in fact, has become an annual occasion for churches to violate the law with impunity. The IRS, meanwhile, admittedly was not enforcing the restrictions against churches. A prior lawsuit in 2009 required the IRS to designate an appropriate high-ranking official to initiate church tax examinations, but it had apparently failed to do so.
The IRS has now resolved the signature authority issue necessary to initiate church examinations. The IRS also has adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations. While the IRS retains “prosecutorial” discretion with regard to any individual case, the IRS no longer has a blanket policy or practice of non-enforcement of political activity restrictions as to churches. (Source)
Watching churches involve themselves in partisan political action is something I personally experienced while growing up and being dragged to Mass every Sunday. I can remember the 1996 presidential election and our parish priest raging from the pulpit, claiming that anyone who voted for a pro-choice candidate was risking their eternal soul. On a side note, this was the same priest who also loudly condemned same-sex relationships while allegedly being in one himself with an editor of a Catholic magazine, and also allegedly soliciting sexual favors from members of the local gay community on his days off.
While “get out the vote campaigns” and other political action is allowed, other activities are forbidden – and there are some very fine lines between what is and isn’t permitted while under a 501(c)(3) status. The IRS defines what is and what isn’t allowed here. For a brief summary, read below:
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. (Source)
It is very important to point out that the IRS is currently under a moratorium for all investigations thanks to Darrell Issa and his accusations that conservative non-profit groups were subjected to unfair scrutiny by the agency. Until that restriction is lifted, which you know the Republican members of Congress will delay as long as they can, the IRS will not be able to start cracking down on churches involving themselves in political matters that they shouldn’t be.
Of course, you just know that once the IRS gets around to actually enforcing the rule, you’re going to hear the usual kvetching about “religious persecution” and how the big, bad government is trying to destroy religion. Franklin Graham, James Dobson and the rest of their ilk will desperately jump in front of every news microphone they can while portraying themselves as political Christian martyrs. We will hear tirade after tirade about the “assault on Christianity” and how it is a new tyrannical attempt by godless liberals and President Obama to silence them.
To summarize, once Darrell Issa and his band of obstructionists in the House get done with their investigation of the IRS, the agency will begin to start enforcing political action restrictions when it comes to churches. A lot of religious organizations have been bending or breaking the rules that outline what can and cannot be done while under 501(c)(3) status. Once the IRS begins to clamp down, we should hope to see either less religious interference in politics, or a loss of tax exempt status for many organizations that choose to violate the guidelines. Either way, it will be a welcome relief to see these groups who have flaunted the rules for a long time finally held accountable.