In election years, it's not uncommon for the Internal Revenue Service to issue a letter to non-profit groups, including houses of worship, reminding them that they may not intervene in partisan politics.
This year, the IRS is taking an additional step. It recently issued a three-page letter to officials with seven political parties reminding them not to lure non-profits into politics. It is believed to be the first time the IRS had issued such a letter to political parties.
"As each presidential election draws near, press reports often raise questions about the role charitable organizations, such as churches, may play in the political debate. This year is no exception," wrote Steven T. Miller, director of the IRS's exempt organizations division, in the June 10 missive.
Continued Miller, "I am providing you with the following information about the federal income tax law requirements to help you ensure that during this election season your committee and the candidates you support do not, inadvertently or otherwise, jeopardize the tax-exempt status of any charitable organization." (Aside from the Democrats and Republicans, the letter also went to the Greens, the Libertarians, the Natural Law Party, the Constitution Party and the America First Party.)
The letter noted that while there are proposals in Congress to change the law, they have not yet passed and added, "the Internal Revenue Service is charged by Congress with policing current law and will take whatever actions are necessary to stem abusive behavior."
The action is especially significant because it came just one week after it was revealed that President George W. Bush's reelection campaign was seeking to enlist 1,600 "friendly" churches in Pennsylvania (and perhaps other states) to serve as meeting points and literature distribution centers.
Americans United issued a strong statement warning churches that partisan activity in the pews could endanger their tax-exempt status.
For many years the IRS has focused its efforts on reminding churches about the law governing unlawful politicking. In an age where more and more campaigns are eager to harness houses of worship, it's good to see the IRS putting more attention on the other side of the equation. This is a welcome step.