Relaxed Regulations?: AU Tells Committee Not To Ease Tax Rules For Houses Of Worship

It’s clear that more and more churches are diving head first into electoral politics, and until the IRS shows it means business, the problem is only going to worsen. But this isn’t happening because the rules are wrong, it’s happening because enforcement appears to be too lax.

One obvious takeaway from the 2012 election cycle was that many houses of worship are brazenly engaging in partisan political activity, even though the federal tax code says they can’t do that and remain tax exempt.

In fact, Americans United reported 13 churches or related organizations to the IRS for improper campaign intervention between July 2011 and October 2012. That’s an awful lot.

But anyone who is paying attention is aware that we haven’t seen many signs of aggressive enforcement by the IRS on this issue in a few years. Yes, federal law bars the IRS from commenting on these investigations, and the IRS has said that churches are being examined. But we haven’t heard from a church since 2008 that says it is being probed. This has led a lot of speculation about what’s going on at the IRS.

So what is one U.S. Senator who has for years been interested in tax rules for non-profits doing about campaign intervention by houses of worship? Investigators from the Senate Finance Committee working for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) have actually recommended eliminating the restrictions against pulpit politicking because “the game is not worth the candle.”

Back in 2007, Grassley got concerned that some evangelical mega-ministries might be abusing their tax-exempt status by doing things like giving employees enormous salaries and housing allowances as well as ownership of huge houses, private jets and fancy cars. He requested information from six ministries, but little came of the effort because four of them flat-out refused to cooperate.

Unfortunately, that’s where this effort went off the rails, as Grassley’s team eventually suggested the IRS give up on making sure churches play by the rules.

Grassley’s office also asked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability to examine other issues related to churches and financial accountability. The Council then formed a Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations (CAPRO), which issued a report in December.

CAPRO basically said more oversight is unnecessary, and called for no changes to a variety of other rules for churches such as the dollar amount of non-taxable housing allowances for clergy.

But wasn’t the end of it. CAPRO said at the time that, for undeclared reasons, it would make a separate report sometime this year on whether to change rules that prohibit houses of worship from engaging in partisan politics.

CAPRO is now accepting comments on the issue of church politicking, and Americans United told the group this week that under no circumstances should the rules be relaxed. AU called church electioneering a “real problem,” noting that it has reported 128 violations since 1996.

“The ban on candidate endorsements protects religious institutions, as electioneering politicizes, divides, and distracts religious communities from their spiritual mission,” AU said. “Polls show that the vast majority of Americans agree.”

Americans United also said houses of worship should not be permitted to engage in even a small amount of political activity on behalf of candidates, nor should the definition of what constitutes intervention be narrowed.

“Substituting the ban with a “substantial part” test would allow churches to engage in significant election work provided it did not amount to a “substantial part” of the church’s activities,” AU said in its comments. “This is also ill advised. Any endorsement politicizes the church. Similarly, simply narrowing the definition of “participate in” or “intervene in” would still allow for many impermissible electioneering activities.

It’s clear that more and more churches are diving head first into electoral politics, and until the IRS shows it means business, the problem is only going to worsen. But this isn’t happening because the rules are wrong, it’s happening because enforcement appears to be too lax.

The IRS doesn’t need to change the rules because they “aren’t working.” The IRS needs to actually enforce the rules so that they can have a chance to work.