Last week, Americans United wrote to John Koskinen, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, and told him that it’s high time he began enforcing the law prohibiting partisan politicking by houses of worship and other tax-exempt entities.
Federal law bars most non-profit groups from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates. The IRS has not been enforcing the law for the past few years. A federal court ruling required the IRS to do internal reorganizing, and the flap over the alleged scandal concerning Tea Party groups – they were supposedly being subjected to heightened scrutiny – made the IRS skittish.
In its letter to Koskinen, AU argued the court case was resolved years ago, and the Tea Party “scandal” turned out to be largely bogus, so it’s time to move on and start enforcing the “no politicking” law again.
To demonstrate the seriousness of the issue, Americans United noted that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) recently appeared at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., at what amounted to a campaign rally.
Hours before arriving at Liberty, Cruz sent a tweet stating that he would announce that he was running for president during the event. And that is exactly what he did. Cruz was surrounded by more than 10,000 Liberty students, who were required to be there, by the way.
AU did not officially ask the IRS to investigate Liberty – although some media outlets reported that; rather, we used the Cruz appearance as an example of the kinds of problems that are occurring because the law is not being enforced. We also pointed out the ongoing problem over the Alliance Defending Freedom’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” where pastors are prodded to flagrantly violate the law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.
Liberty provided Cruz with a nice backdrop for a candidate rally. It’s the sort of thing, AU believes, that should draw IRS scrutiny. Our point was that the agency needs to start enforcing the law now because it’s pretty clear that, for better or for worse, campaign 2016 is under way, and we’re only going to see more violations like this.
Jerry Falwell Jr. and other Liberty University officials insist that the school has done nothing wrong. In an interview with Alicia Petska of the Lynchburg News & Advance, David Corry, the university’s attorney, said, “The event was a speech. It wasn’t an announcement of candidacy for the Republican nomination of president….We were clear with the folks from the campaign in advance that this would not be an announcement.”
It wasn’t an announcement of Cruz’s candidacy? I have to wonder what speech Corry was listening to. Of course the event was an announcement of Cruz’s candidacy! Virtually every major media outlet reported it that way, and Cruz methodically planned the whole thing to kick off his quest for the White House. CNN noted that Cruz deliberately picked Liberty to make the announcement to boost his standing with the Religious Right.
Falwell told the News & Advance that these types of events featuring speakers – called “convocations” – are a regular part of the school’s educational program. He pointed out that speakers are drawn from various communities – business, politics, religion, entertainment, etc.
That may be so. But on March 23, Liberty University allowed its convocation to be taken over by a man who announced to the world that he is running for president. And the school did this with full knowledge that he intended to say this.
In a nutshell, Liberty University sponsored the first Ted Cruz for President campaign rally. It should not be allowed to do that while retaining its tax-exempt status.
It is time for the IRS to start enforcing the laws of the land.