IRS Accused of Losing $100 Billion a Year by Allowing Politicized Churches to Remain Tax-Exempt

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has allowed churches to engage in partisan advocacy while also not enforcing nonprofit rules on them, according to a lawsuit filed by a religious freedom group.

In its civil complaint, the Freedom From Religion Foundation claims the IRS is failing to collect $100 billion a year by permitting churches to maintain tax-exempt status, even though many are violating rules that prohibit tax-exempt entities from engaging in electioneering speech.

Since 1954, the IRS has prohibited tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from publicly supporting election campaigns. But in recent years, churches—including a heavy California contingent—have flaunted their civil disobedience through movements like Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

On October 7, hundreds of pastors taunted the IRS by speaking in favor of candidates as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a 52-year-old annual event organized by the Arizona-based Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom. On its website, the Alliance encourages “America’s pastors to choose and deliver the content of their sermons without fearing that the IRS will investigate or punish the church because of something a pastor says from the pulpit.” The group says it wants to transform the legal system to reclaim America from “radical anti-Christian groups.”

In California, one of the movement’s most active states, 142 pastors participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday and weighed in on politics despite the law. Nationwide, 1,586 pastors signed up to record their politically-laced sermons and send them to the IRS. Jim Garlow, pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church near San Diego, is a leader in the movement and endorsed Mitt Romney from his pulpit. His megachurch reportedly gets a $7 million tax break as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

The IRS has given the churches little reason to expect retribution. California Watch says the last time the agency successfully stripped a church of its tax-exemption was after the 1992 presidential election. The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, New York, had placed full-page ads in newspapers attacking Bill Clinton on abortion and gay rights which proclaimed: “Christian Beware. Do not put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments.” 

The IRS scrutinized 47 churches after the 2004 presidential election and found that 42 of them had overstepped legal boundaries, but did not challenge their tax-exempt status. It simply warned them not to do it again. It sent out just four such letters after the 2006 elections.

The last time the agency took action against a church for political involvement was 2009, California Watch reported, when the Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, endorsed Republican congressional candidate Michele Bachmann. It ruled the church violated the law, but was overturned by the U.S. District Court in the state. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has complained numerous times to the IRS about alleged violations of the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution. These violations include Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, telling followers they cannot “in good conscience” support pro-choice candidates for office.

Another bishop, Daniel Jenky in Peoria, Illinois, compared President Barack Obama to Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin during a homily delivered at his cathedral. The foundation also called attention to the actions of Rev. Billy Graham, who took out an ad in The Wall Street Journal and other periodicals urging his followers to vote for candidates who opposed abortion and same-sex marriage.

The foundation wants the court to order the IRS to enforce electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations, and it wants injunctions against any churches or religious organizations violating the restrictions.

A Pew Research Center survey earlier in the year found that 54% of Americans thought churches should stay out of politics, compared to 40% who thought they should express themselves on social and political issues.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, David Wallechinsky


To Learn More:

IRS Gives Partisan Churches a Pass, Group Says (by Lisa Buchmeier, Courthouse News Service)

Is the IRS Failing to Uphold the Separation of Church and State? (by Steve Williams, Care 2)

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. IRS (U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin) (pdf)

Pastors Prepare to Taunt IRS by Endorsing Candidates Despite Tax-Exempt Status (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

IRS Balks at Investigating Tax-Exempt Organizations Accused of Violating Tax Laws (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Tax-Exempt Churches Plan to Engage in Illegal Electioneering (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

As Churches Get Political, IRS Stays Quiet (by Nanette Byrnes, Reuters)

Pastors Challenge IRS Rule with Partisan Talk (by Amy Julia Harris, (California Watch)

Pulpit Freedom Sunday 2012 Participating Churches (Alliance Defending Freedom) (pdf)

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