IRS Inaction on Politically Partisan Religion Bad News for All

October 23, 2012; Source: The Republic

Many observers, such as Rekha Basu of the Scripps Howard News Service, seem a little perplexed about the behavior of the Internal Revenue Service. For most of us, if we step out of line in activities and behaviors overseen by the IRS, we fear the dreaded IRS audit or that we’ll get one of those letters explaining that one owes money and interest.

But if you’re a church leader who participated in the recent “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” all is okay. You might have been one of the 1,500 pastors who chose to endorse candidates for political office that day in pretty clear violation of federal law. You might have been doing this since 2008, but the IRS didn’t show up to administer any financial or other legal sanctions whatsoever.

Basu comments, “It would be one thing if the pastors’ defiance were limited to that one-day event, staged as an act of civil disobedience. But churches are increasingly overstepping the bounds and getting away with it.” Of 237 referrals of improper electoral activity by 501(c)(3) organizations or their religious equivalents in the 2006 election cycle—the most recent information made available from the IRS—the IRS investigated 100 organizations. 44 were churches. In many of the 2006 cases, there were substantial cash donations to candidates. At this time, according to Basu, half of the IRS investigations haven’t been completed and, despite findings of improper political activity in 326 cases, not one of those involved has lost its tax-exempt status to date.

These advocates’ attempt to open the doors to a politically partisan charitable sector isn’t getting much pushback from the IRS. Doesn’t that signal a tacit acquiescence to a partisan nonprofit sector? Or—and we don’t know this, but we ask—is the IRS giving wide berth to political churches but cracking down a little tighter on charities that violate the electoral campaigning prohibition?

Whether the IRS is simply giving churches a free pass or deciding that the entire mélange of partisan activity by 501(c)(3)s and their religious equivalents is beyond their capacity to police, the result is really bad news. If the nonprofit sector becomes seen by donors and politicians as yet another tool in the ever-expanding pool of dollars diverted to the ravenous appetite of political campaigns, good luck to all of us.—Rick Cohen

  • Katherine M. Castle

    Wait a minute! I am a little confused now. I thought that no one is above the “LAW” and now this article is reading that, ” But if you’re a church leader who participated in the recent “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” all is okay. You might have been one of the 1,500 pastors who chose to endorse candidates for political office that day in pretty clear violation of federal law” ( Written by rick cohen 24 October,2012). Church leaders who practice under the worlds first book of law “THE BIBLE” is using, and abusing it for ones own political purpose? Now let me express how this article looks to my eyes speaking from the peoples view who is part of the people who pay hard earned taxes on a (daily and yearly practice of the LAW). Shame on YOU!!!

  • Tom King

    Nonprofits lobby for their party (usually Democrat) all the time. They call it “educating the public”, but it’s obvious which political camp any given nonprofit 501(c)3 is sitting in. Churches are a unique segment of the nonprofit sector, protected three way – freedom of speech, freedom of assemply, freedom of religion. Historically, churches have always been a factor in political activity. During the Civil War, it was largely church folk that pressured Lincoln to make the war about ending slavery. Powerful speakers rose in pulpits across the land (even a few brave souls in the South did) to call for the end to the pernicious institution. The Revolutionary War was practically organized in church houses across the country.

    Freedom of Religion is not Freedom From Religion. As unions, political parties and advocacy groups speak for workers, population groups and people of various political persuasions, so churches speak for the members of their congregations. To muzzle pastors is absolutely unconscionable. It is to silence people because of their creed and we would certainly not condone silencing people because of their race or color.

    Churches are in no way profit-making enterprises. When naughty pastors misuse church funds they should be arrested and thrown in jail. I know of few Christians who would object to that. When churches profiteer off their members, they should be investigated and taxed like all git-out! BUT to muzzle this country’s clergy is unconscionable and deprives the political process of a key element of decision-making – a conscience.

    Perhaps we should change the designation of churches to separate them from nonprofits that accept federal and state grants. If churches accept government money, then fine, they need to shut up about politics. BUT so long as a church operates as a nonprofit, ethically and accepts no support from the government, the by all that’s holy let them speak up.

    And don’t tell me unions do that to. Unions are profit-making entities. They earn raises and benefits for their members. It is their chief purpose. That’s a whole different story from churches.

    Churches are a critical voice for their people and traditionally have been the conscience of our nation. Perhaps you don’t like churches, hate pastors and have nightmares about the Sunday School teacher who used to wag her boney finger at you and tell you that you were going straight to hell. That gives you no excuse to silence people of faith, just because you have chosen to remove yourself from their company. – (excerpted from by Tom King)

  • Tom King

    If the IRS had taken this attitude during the 50s and 60s, Dr. Martin Luther King would have had some difficulty fighting for Civil Rights. Remember, Dr. King was a preacher and a whole lot of his political speeches were delivered in churches..

  • Tom King

    Unions are also tax exempt. They’re openly political and yet tax exempt. Okay, church DONATIONS are also tax exempt and union contributions are not. Ah, but there’s a rather large difference.

    Unions have as their primary purpose to enrich their members by negotiating for greater pay and benefits. Churches do not. Yes, some pastors misuse church funds, but then so do union bosses. Both should and do go to jail for it. If Unions can instruct their members as to who to vote for, churches should also be able to.

    I’m just saying.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Tom: Thanks for your comment. Dr. King was fighting for civil rights, that was his political message, not a message for specific parties or candidates.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Tom; Donations to churches are tax deductible. Donations to unions are not. That’s how unions (501c5s), social welfare organizations (501c4s), and business trade associations (501c6s) are fundamentally different from public charities (501c3s) and churches (considered the equivalent of (c3s) for charitable tax deduction purposes. It’s a pretty clear distinction. I’m just saying, as you would say.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Tom: The clergy isn’t muzzled. If it wants to endorse political candidates, a church can forgo the tax deductibility of donations it receives. And no, I harbor no antipathy to clergy and have no nightmares about people waving bony fingers at me and threatening me with hell. Not to worry, I don’t have those nightmares. Like unions and the Chamber of Commerce, churches and church leaders can endorse anyone they want for elective office–if they choose for give up the charitable tax deductibility of donations they receive. Thanks for your comment.