Was Ted Cruz’ Announcement Illegal for Liberty U?

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has sent a letter to the IRS arguing that by hosting Sen. Ted Cruz’ announcement of his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, they violated the rules governing non-profit organizations that forbid them from endorsing candidates.

In a letter to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn urged the agency to act now, since the 2016 presidential campaign is getting under way.

“Too many houses of worship, religious colleges and other tax-exempt groups are flagrantly violating the law by endorsing or opposing candidates,” Lynn said. “The IRS has the power to stop this, and it’s time the agency used it.”

In his letter to Koskinen, Lynn noted that Americans don’t want to see non-profit groups turned into partisan political units.

“Many Americans are concerned over the abuse of tax-exempt status by organizations with partisan political intent,” wrote Lynn. “With our nation approaching a presidential election, the problem of pulpit politicking will only become more acute.”

Lynn noted that Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., allowed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to officially announce his presidential campaign at the school March 23. The university, which is tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, hosted what amounted to a campaign rally for Cruz; students were required to attend the event.

This partisan activity by Liberty University on Cruz’s behalf, Lynn said, deserves scrutiny by the IRS.

Contrary to popular misconception, it isn’t true that non-profits can’t engage in political activities. Restrictions vary depending on which specific section of 501(c) code a group is incorporated under, but the one thing that is universal is that they cannot endorse candidates. And while I think what Liberty U did clearly violated the spirit of the law, I doubt the IRS will take action or that they would succeed in court if they did. They did make a specific disclaimer at the event that hosting it did not constitute an endorsement of Cruz, which is a pretty obvious ruse but one that would likely be successful in court.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Al Dente

    There’s little doubt that Liberty U had their lawyers vet the non-endorsement statement.

  • fulcrumx

    I wonder if the story is true that students were subject to a fine if they failed to attend the meeting and how that would weigh in any court action about losing their exempt status for improperly supporting political candidates.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    One possible workaround for LU: extend similar invitations to other prospective candidates.

    All the potential Repub candidates would seriously consider that “open forum”. Hillary Clinton wouldn’t, but I could see Bernie Sanders having the nerve to take them up on it…

  • http://kamakanui.zenfolio.com Kamaka

    students were required to attend the event.

    This crosses a line. But I truly doubt anything will come of it.

    Given the indifference of the IRS, getting these freeloaders to knock it off is going to be a long, tough fight. But a fight the cheaters will eventually lose.

    Good play, Americans United.

  • eamick

    @2: It’s true, but not likely to matter. As Snopes points out, Liberty U has mandatory weekly convocations, and students are fined for missing any of them. The Cruz speech was one of those convocations.

  • Michael Heath

    Al Dente writes:

    There’s little doubt that Liberty U had their lawyers vet the non-endorsement statement.

    I can see some conservative religion groups covertly conceding a planned action is illegal or at least unethical, but doing it anyway because they think the benefits will outweigh the predicted legal costs.

  • D. C. Sessions

    There’s little doubt that Liberty U had their lawyers vet the non-endorsement statement.

    Are those the same lawyers who staff Liberty Counsel?

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    WWDDSD?

    (What would Dinesh D’Souza Do?)

  • http://www.twitter.com/jablair51 Ouabache

    And while I think what Liberty U did clearly violated the spirit of the law, I doubt the IRS will take action or that they would succeed in court if they did.

    Well, the IRS definitely won’t take action because they decided a long time ago that they won’t even investigate churches. The last time any religious group lost their tax exempt status was in the 90s.

  • http://saltycurrent.blogspot.com SC (Salty Current)

    the one thing that is universal is that they cannot endorse candidates

    Whether they can function as thinly disguised government front organizations seems to be something of a gray area, though.