May 2012 Church & State | People & Events

The federal tax law ban on electioneering by churches should be kept in place, Americans United has told a panel examining issues related to non-profit organizations.

On March 30, Americans United submitted comments to the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations. The commission, an independent body operating under the auspices of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, is soliciting public input on a variety of issues affecting religious non-profit groups. Its work grew out of an inquiry originally undertaken by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) who was concerned that several television preachers were abusing their ministries’ tax-exempt status by using them for personal enrichment.

Americans United became alarmed early in 2011 when Grassley’s investigators at the Senate Finance Committee veered off course and in their final report recommended doing away with the “no-electioneering” rule.

Among the issues the commission is examining is a federal law that bars 501(c)(3) non-profit groups, including churches, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

AU told the commission that the ban on direct partisan politicking should be retained.

“Church politicking remains a real problem (AU has reported 114 violations since 1996), and the IRS ban should remain,” asserted Americans United. “Houses of worship currently may engage in electioneering but, like all 501(c)(3) organizations, they cannot simultaneously claim tax-exempt status. This 52-year-old IRS rule prevents tax deductible charitable donations from being used to support political candidates.

“The ban on church politicking,” AU explained, “protects religious institutions, as such electioneering politicizes, divides and distracts religious communities from their spiritual mission. And polls show that the vast majority of Americans agree with us.”

AU also opposed replacing the strict ban with a new rule allowing some church intervention in partisan politics as long as it did not constitute a “substantial part” of a church’s activities, arguing that such a standard “would allow churches to engage in significant election work….”

The issue of church politicking continues to crop up during this election year. Jerry Newcombe of Truth in Action Ministries recently argued in a widely disseminated column that houses of worship need not be wary of the IRS. Newcombe accused Americans United of attempting to scare churches away from political activity.

“I think part of the reason many pastors and priests are unwilling to speak out on ‘politics’ (so-called) is because they fear the loss of their tax-exempt status,” Newcombe wrote. “I believe that the perceived threat is far more insidious than the actual threat. The dog’s bark is much more prominent than the dog’s bite.”

In response, Lynn penned a post for Americans United’s “Wall of Separation” blog pointing out how Newcombe got it wrong.

“I’m not trying to scare anyone. I’m merely pointing out what federal law says, and I’m recommending that churches follow it,” wrote Lynn.

Lynn went on to say, “Despite what Newcombe claims, the Internal Revenue Service does enforce this law. In 2006, the IRS reports that it investigated allegations of partisan political involvement by 46 churches and other religious organizations. Forty-two were found to have violated the law and issued written warnings. Furthermore, the IRS later announced that it followed up on the organizations that were issued warnings to make certain none had violated the law again.”

The AU director also pointed out that high-profile television ministries affiliated with Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell have also been penalized for political involvement. Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour both lost their tax exemptions retroactively and were required to make payments to the IRS. They also had to make changes to their organizational structures so that no future political campaign intervention activities would occur.