The IRS And Church Electioneering: Enforce The Law Already!

Because we have a secular government and church-state separation, the United States has largely avoided sectarian strife.

Is the Internal Revenue Service still enforcing the federal tax law ban on partisan politicking by churches and other non-profits?

IRS officials say they are.

In an interview with NBC News, IRS spokesman Dean Patterson repudiated comments by a regional IRS official who said recently that the agency was "holding any potential church audits in abeyance" while it revises its regulations in light of a 2009 federal court decision.

Patterson told NBC the official "misspoke."

Said Patterson, "The IRS continues to run a balanced program that follows up on potential non-compliance, while ensuring the appropriate oversight and review to determine that compliance activities are necessary and appropriate."

That’s all good and well. But those of us who follow this issue closely are seeing few signs of aggressive enforcement, and we’re seeing lots of flagrant law breaking. The right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom claims over 1,500 churches waded into partisan politics on the group’s so-called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” And many members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy have been notably political this year, slyly – or sometimes overtly –urging parishioners to vote for particular candidates.

My colleague Rob Boston says Americans United has received far more reports of dubious election intervention this season than any year since 1992 when AU first began monitoring church electioneering activities in a formal way.

This is a critically important issue for our democracy. We already have serious problems with vast amounts of money being dropped into campaigns. Imagine how much more devastating it would be if every house of worship jumped into elections, too.

News reports from other countries reveal how divisive it is when politics comes down to warring religious tribes. In many Middle Eastern countries, government must try to balance the interests of the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Alawites and the various Christian denominations.  And it doesn’t take much for this kind of sectarian rivalry to spill over into civil unrest, persecution or even war.

Because we have a secular government and church-state separation, the United States has largely avoided sectarian strife. We don’t want to go down that road.

The Los Angeles Times had a good editorial on this topic yesterday.

Noting election intervention by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Bishop Daniel Jenky and others, the Times observed, “Some would argue that it's futile for the IRS to try to police political activity by churches. We disagree. The IRS can and should investigate accusations of blatant partisanship, such as a church bulletin that endorses a candidate by name or the sign outside a Texas church that reportedly advised: ‘Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim! The capitalist, not the communist!’”

I agree completely. The IRS needs to do its duty and enforce the law.

PS: If you haven’t voted already, get out and do so NOW!