Have you heard the latest? The Internal Revenue Service has entered into a secret deal with an atheist group to monitor pastors all over America and squelch their political speech!
That’s the latest paranoid fantasy from the Religious Right. The truth, as is often the case, is much more mundane.
Before we get to the meat of things, some background: A lot of us in the separation of church and state community have been frustrated over the blatant partisan political activity that some churches (on the right and the left) engage in.
Non-profit, tax-exempt organizations that hold 501 (c)(3) status aren’t permitted to endorse or oppose candidates. It’s a violation of federal law. Groups holding this status (which includes houses of worship) can address political issues, but they can’t shill for or against candidates. In short, they are not allowed to act like political action committees.
The IRS hasn’t exactly been aggressive in enforcing this law when it comes to houses of worship. The situation got worse in 2009 when an evangelical church in Minnesota that was being investigated for politicking sued the IRS to block the tax agency’s plan to audit it.
The church cited a federal law that requires all church audits to be approved by a “high-ranking” IRS official. The IRS official who approved this audit, the church argued, did not meet this requirement.
The church won in court. All church audits and investigations for politicking were brought to a screeching halt as the IRS announced plans to reorganize and formulate new church-audit procedures.
And there things stood. Nothing happened. Americans United would occasionally prod the IRS, and officials there would insist that the process was under way. In a letter AU received from the IRS in February of 2014, an agency attorney assured us that “Work on final regulations…is ongoing” and that resolving this issue was among the IRS’s “2013 - 2014 Priority Guidance Plan.”
Then, earlier this summer, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) announced that it had settled a lawsuit with the IRS dealing with church politicking. The FFRF had sued the tax agency over its reluctance to investigate churches for partisan politicking. Supposedly the IRS had caved.
This sparked allegations that the IRS had cut some sort of secret deal with the FFRF and would soon crack down on churches for politicking. This was widely reported in the media, and soon Religious Right leaders were howling.
Journalist Sarah Posner dug a little deeper and uncovered some overlooked facts. Here’s what really happened: The case between the FFRF and the IRS was not, in a legal sense, settled. A “settlement” implies a legal agreement between both parties that is approved by a court. In fact, the FFRF voluntarily withdrew the lawsuit. The group did this after becoming convinced that the IRS does in fact have a mechanism in place to investigate houses of worship that break the law by engaging in partisan politicking.
And that “secret deal” between the FFRF and the IRS? It doesn’t exist. The FFRF did produce a letter that the IRS wrote to officials at the U.S. Department of Justice. This letter, dated June 27, 2014, states that the IRS “has processed several cases involving churches using procedures designed to ensure that the protections afforded to churches by the Church Audit Procedures Act are adhered to in all enforcement interaction between the IRS and churches.”
The IRS says it has established a “Political Activities Referral Committee” (PARC) to investigate these allegations. PARC is up and running and has determined “as of June 23, 2014, 99 churches merit a high priority examination” for partisan political activity undertaken during the years 2010-13.
In English: The IRS is claiming it has new procedures in place to deal with the issues raised by the lawsuit from the Minnesota church and says it has created a unit to deal with church politicking.
So what happens now? It’s hard to say. The IRS is still rattled by allegations – which have since been shown to be without merit – that it subjected Tea Party groups to undue scrutiny. Right-wingers in Congress made such a fuss over that issue that the IRS may step back into this area gingerly.
But step back in the tax agency must. Religious Right legal groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom are openly urging pastors to violate the law. This can’t continue.
All Americans United and its allies are asking for is that the law be applied evenly to secular and religious groups. Tax exemption is a lucrative benefit, and as such it comes with conditions. One of those conditions is a ban on partisan politicking.
There is an easy solution for any group or house of worship that doesn’t like this deal: Go ahead and be as partisan as you want to be and endorse or oppose candidates all day long. But first, surrender your tax exemption.