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