For 10 years running, I attended an event in Washington, D.C., called the Values Voter Summit. Sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC), a prominent Chrisitan nationalist group, and its far-right allies, the annual confab was hyper-partisan in nature. I can’t tell you how many times I sat through sessions during which Republican politicians, including presidential hopefuls, begged for votes and pledged fealty to the Religious Right.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find out I had been attending church services all those years. I must have because FRC has just been recognized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as a church.
This is, to put it bluntly, a crock. If you go to FRC’s D.C. headquarters this Sunday (or any other day of the week), there probably won’t be any worship services going on there. That’s because FRC is not a church – it’s a Christian nationalist lobby and pressure group.
The federal government is naturally reluctant to define what constitutes a house of worship. I get that. But there must be some standard, otherwise just about any group would claim the lucrative benefits, including tax exemption and being excused from a host of secular laws, that the church designation confers.
Sure enough, the IRS has a 14-point checklist of “characteristics [that] are generally attributed to churches.” The IRS notes that these characteristics “have been developed by the IRS and by court decisions.”
Let’s consider a few. Point 2 says churches have a “recognized creed and form of worship.” Does FRC have this? Nope – unless gay bashing, beating on liberals, lying about public education, trying to overturn the results of a democratic election and making excuses for domestic terrorists constitutes a creed. Point 7 says churches maintain an “organization of ordained ministers.” There may be some ministers working at FRC, but their purpose is politics, not piety.
Point 10 says churches have an “established place of worship.” FRC has a building near D.C.’s Chinatown, but don’t bother to go there on Sunday for services. You’ll find the doors locked tight. Point 11 says churches have “regular congregations.” FRC has dues-paying members all over America, not folks sitting in pews, singing in choirs and helping out during services. Point 12 asserts that a church offers “regular religious services,” and Point 13 notes that they sponsor “schools for the religious instruction of the young.” FRC offers neither.
FRC gets substantial benefits from masquerading as a church. Chiefly, it’s basically free from most forms of financial oversight. As a church, FRC will no longer file a Form 990, a financial statement that nonprofits must complete and make available every year. The 990 provides some basic financial data, such as budget size, and gives a sense of how nonprofits spend the money they raise. It also lists top staff and board members. (The FRC has filled out this form for years, but now it no longer wants to. It makes you wonder what FRC is trying to hide.)
Being officially designated a church gives FRC other benefits as well, as houses of worship are often wholly or partly exempt from certain federal laws.
FRC isn’t the only right-wing group pulling this stunt. Liberty Counsel, a Christian nationalist legal organization, declared itself a church auxiliary years ago, and Focus on the Family, a Christian nationalist behemoth in Colorado Spring, also claims to be a church.
These are dodgy moves. The only question is why on Earth the IRS is allowing this to happen.
Photo: The headquarters of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.