Politics in the Church and the IRS

I was reading a post at Political Outcast on the possibility that the IRS might begin to monitor sermons for political content thanks to a settlement with the Freedom from Religion Foundation. I might be tempted to regard this as exaggerated or alarmist but it happens that I had already read the FfRF’s statement on the lawsuit. While I do not think the IRS is likely to start sending agents into churches to monitor sermons, this ruling clearly allows groups like the FfRF to harass religious groups that dare to make any public statement on any political issue. Since the left politicizes everything, this means that any preacher that preaches on any subject in a politically correct way, abortion, say or homosexuality, could find have his church’s tax exemption revoked.

Here is the FfRF’s statement.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Internal Revenue Service reached an agreement today (July 17) that resolves for the time being an ongoing federal lawsuit over non-enforcement of restrictions on political activity by tax-exempt religious organizations and churches.

“This is a victory, and we’re pleased with this development in which the IRS has proved to our satisfaction that it now has in place a protocol to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

“Of course, we have the complication of a moratorium currently in place on any IRS investigations of any tax-exempt entities, church or otherwise, due to the congressional probe of the IRS. FFRF could refile the suit if anti-electioneering provisions are not enforced in the future against rogue political churches.”

FFRF filed suit against the IRS shortly after the presidential election in 2012, based on the agency’s reported enforcement moratorium, as evidenced by open and notorious politicking by churches. Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in fact, has become an annual occasion for churches to violate the law with impunity. The IRS, meanwhile, admittedly was not enforcing the restrictions against churches. A prior lawsuit in 2009 required the IRS to designate an appropriate high-ranking official to initiate church tax examinations, but it had apparently failed to do so.

The IRS has now resolved the signature authority issue necessary to initiate church examinations. The IRS also has adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations. While the IRS retains “prosecutorial” discretion with regard to any individual case, the IRS no longer has a blanket policy or practice of non-enforcement of political activity restrictions as to churches.

In addition to FFRF’s lawsuit, IRS enforcement procedures with respect to political activity by tax-exempt organizations have been the subject of intense scrutiny by Congress. As a result, the IRS is reviewing and implementing safeguards to ensure evenhanded enforcement across the board with respect to all tax exempt organizations.

Until that process is completed, the IRS has suspended all examinations of tax-exempt organizations for alleged political activities. The current suspension, however, is not limited to church tax inquiries.

Until the IRS has satisfied congressional overseers that objective procedures are firmly in place with regard to political activities by all tax-exempt organizations, the judge in FFRF’s pending suit would not currently be able to order any immediate or effective relief.

As a result, FFRF has reached a point where no further immediate changes realistically can be accomplished through continued litigation. The dismissal of the pending action, however, is expected to be without prejudice, which means that further legal action by FFRF to enforce anti-electioneering provisions is not precluded in the future if necessary.

Why shouldn’t churches be involved in politics? The IRS explains it.

The ban on political campaign activity by charities and churches was created by Congress more than a half century ago. The Internal Revenue Service administers the tax laws written by Congress and has enforcement authority over tax-exempt organizations. Here is some background information on the political campaign activity ban and the latest IRS enforcement statistics regarding its administration of this congressional ban.

In 1954, Congress approved an amendment by Sen. Lyndon Johnson to prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity. To the extent Congress has revisited the ban over the years, it has in fact strengthened the ban. The most recent change came in 1987 when Congress amended the language to clarify that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.

Currently, the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

I really do not see how this is constitutional, nor do I understand why churches must remain silent in order to qualify for tax exemptions. Frankly, I would prefer that churches not be exempt from taxes because I am not comfortable with the IRS deciding what is and isn’t a legitimate religion.

The reason for the FfRF”s concern is the movement called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” headed by a pastor named Jim Garlow. Mr. Garlow believes that preachers should not be restricted in their choice of subject matter for their sermons but must be free to speak out on any issue that concerns their audience, including who should be elected to office. As a result of this belief he has begun a movement of more than a thousand pastors to deliberately challenge the IRS’s ban on politicking.

Again, I don’t understand why the restriction isn’t unconstitutional. Preachers ought to have the freedom to preach whatever they want to preach. Whether they should preach on political subjects is another matter. In general, I do not believe they should. The mission of the church is to get souls to Heaven and not to try to make Earth into Heaven. When the church gets involved with politics, it does not improve the political scene. Politics tends to corrupt the church.

This is no reason for the government to demand that churches stay out of politics. The idea behind the Johnson amendment seems to be that if a tax exempt church interferes in politics that is equivalent to the government establishing a church by funding it. But why? If the government reduces taxes, it is not giving people money, contrary to what progressives believe. It is allowing them to keep more of their own money. If the government chooses not to tax religious institutions,  it is not funding the institutions, it is refraining from taking their money. It seems to me that the demand that churches stay out of politics is a violation of their freedom of expression as well as their free exercise of religion. Perhaps it is time this law is changed in favor of freedom.

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One Response to “Politics in the Church and the IRS”

  1. Leslie Loftis (@AHLondonTX) Says:

    I found this post while doing research for an article. Since you have First Amendment questions: http://thefederalist.com/2014/10/21/houston-sermons-are-legally-speaking-fair-game/

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