Government-Supported Religion

Members Of Congress Tell The IRS That Christian Nationalist Groups Aren’t Churches

  Rob Boston

This blog reported last month on a disturbing new trend of overtly political Christian nationalist groups claiming to be houses of worship and winning designation as churches from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Being classified as a church has obvious benefits for these organizations. Chiefly, it frees them up from having to report even minimal information about their finances and limits their accountability.

The problem is, these groups simply are not churches. They don’t hold Sunday services and don’t have congregations. They exist mainly to pressure their lawmaker allies to skew American policy, especially on social issues, so they can force all of us to live by their narrow beliefs. Even though they are tax-exempt and should adhere to the Johnson Amendment, many of these organizations skirt federal law by engaging in activities that endorse or oppose political candidates.

Things came to a head recently after it was reported by Pro Publica that the Family Research Council (FRC), one of the largest Christian nationalist pressure groups in the country, won reclassification as a church in 2020. Some members of Congress took note, and now they’re taking action.

A group of 40 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to the IRS Aug. 1 asking the tax agency to review its decision to classify FRC and other political organizations as churches.

“They do not hold religious services, do not have a congregation or affiliated congregations, and do not possess many of the other attributes of churches listed by the IRS,” asserts the letter. “FRC is one example of an alarming pattern in the last decade – right-wing advocacy groups self-identifying as ‘churches’ and applying for and receiving church status.”

The letter goes on to say, “We understand the importance of religious institutions to their congregants and believe that religious freedom is a cherished American value and constitutional right. We also believe that our tax code must be applied fairly and judiciously. Tax-exempt organizations should not be exploiting tax laws applicable to churches to avoid public accountability and the IRS’s examination of their activities.”

It concludes, “Given that the FRC is primarily an advocacy organization and not a church, we urge the IRS to swiftly review the tax-exempt status, and whether there are other political advocacy organizations that have obtained church status, but do not satisfy the IRS requirements for churches, integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches. Further, we urge the IRS to improve the review process for organizations seeking church status to ensure that organizations that are not churches cannot abuse the tax code. Finally, we request the IRS determine whether existing guidance is sufficient to prevent abuse and what resources or Congressional actions are needed to ensure adequate implementation and enforcement moving forward.  We request that you provide a timely update on this matter and look forward to your response.”

Among the letter’s signers are U.S. Reps. Jared Huffman (Calif.), Jamie Raskin (Md.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Norma J. Torres (Calif.), Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.), Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), Mark Pocan (Wisc.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (Washington, D.C.). Many of them are members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which aims “to protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.”

The members’ letter makes a strong case that FRC and other political groups aren’t churches and don’t deserve that designation. The IRS should act swiftly to correct this mistake.

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