July/August 2013 Church & State | People & Events

Recent revelations that the Internal Revenue Service may have inappropriately singled out Tea Party groups for special tax-status scrutiny led some Religious Right groups to claim that they too had been targeted, but the situations are not the same, says Americans United.

Right-wing evangelist Franklin Graham complained that the ministry founded by this father, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), was also investigated by the IRS. Graham, in a letter to President Barack Obama, asserted that the IRS sent agents to the North Carolina offices of the BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse, a charity the younger Graham runs, to investigate claims that the ministries had waded into partisan politics.

But Americans United pointed out that there is solid evidence that Graham deserved to be scrutinized because his ministries might have broken federal law barring electioneering by tax-exempt organizations.

Graham conceded that he has in years past used the BGEA to send messages to donors advising them to support “candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel.”

In 2012, Graham went even further and arranged for his father to meet with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and endorse him. The senior Graham told Romney, “I will do all I can to help you.”

Shortly after that, the BGEA began using the ministry’s tax-exempt funds to pay for full-page ads in newspapers. The ads featured Billy Graham stating, “I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”

In an opinion column published in The Washington Post, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn noted that federal law bars all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, a category that includes houses of worship, from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates. Graham, Lynn charged, appears to have violated this law.

“This activity was clearly an effort by one of the Graham families’ tax-exempt groups to directly affect the outcome of the election,” wrote Lynn. “If this brazen action led to IRS scrutiny, I’m fine with that. My only regret is that the agency didn’t yank the BGEA’s tax-exempt status for doing so.”

Continued Lynn, “The problem isn’t that the IRS is being too aggressive in this area. It’s that its enforcement efforts have been sporadic, unfocused and tepid. Instead of putting applications from Tea Party groups under a microscope, the IRS would do better to crack down on Graham and the religious leaders like him who openly flout federal tax law.”

In a separate opinion column that ran online at the popular Huffington Post news website, Lynn pointed out that Americans United has sent numerous examples of blatant church electioneering to the IRS in recent years but that there appears to be little activity by the tax agency to enforce the law.

It appears, concluded the AU leader, “that officials at the IRS can’t get motivated to work resolving an actual problem and are instead spending time embroiling themselves in embarrassing scandals. Perhaps it’s time to bring in some people who not only understand the law but are willing to enforce it.”