Today in Irony: A Church Spreads Good Morals by Breaking the Law

Many religious groups don’t seem to get how the system works. It’s really pretty simple. The government doesn’t tax them as long as they stay out of politics.

That temptation is hard to resist… In Texas, a church is being investigated for violating Texas’ election laws and possibly the federal tax code.

The Texas law reads:

A corporation or labor organization may not make a political contribution or political expenditure in connection with a recall election, including the circulation and submission of a petition to call an election.

Non-profit corporations (like churches) are explicitly included in the definition of corporations for the purpose of this statute. The mayor of El Paso, Texas enforced the law against the Word of Life Church after its pastor, Tom Brown, circulated recall petitions against the mayor and two city council members earlier this year.

Their sin? Voting to give same-sex partners of city employees health benefits.

That vote overturned a ballot initiative that Tom Brown had worked to pass. The recall petition was a shot back at the City Council.

Tom Brown, the founder and pastor of Word of Life Church (left) and El Paso city Reps. Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd and Mayor John Cook (right).

Back in August, Americans United filed a complaint with the IRS about Word of Life Church’s activities. Since the IRS code specifically prohibits this sort of thing, it seems implausible that Tom Brown was unaware of that.

That brings us to what’s happening now. In response to the Mayor’s enforcement of the Texas law, the church recently filed a lawsuit (PDF) claiming its First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. (Along with a §1983 claim). Based on my understanding of the IRS restrictions on non-profits, they have absolutely no ground to stand on. However, based on my understanding of Supreme Court jurisprudence and First Amendment decisions… they may have some argument.

If the mayor was looking to stay well within the bounds of legality, he would have done better to call the IRS on them (unless of course he was letting Americans United take care of that).

Readers may want to shed more light on this, but it seems patently unconstitutional, or perhaps it just hasn’t been challenged since Citizens United. It seems likely that the church will win on the constitutional challenge to the Texas election law, given that political speech is the highest rung of speech on the First Amendment ladder. As such, it’s granted heavy protection by the courts from laws like these. As to the IRS complaint, they seem to have pretty blatantly run afoul of IRS regulations. Hopefully they’ll be penalized more heavily than Informed Catholic Citizens were.

About Carrie

Carrie Clark is a lawyer in Illinois. The opinions herein are that of the author only. Any information in this post is for discussion purposes only, and is not offered as legal advice.

  • PJB863

    Political speech is the highest rung on the ladder for individuals.  Not so for non-profits.  They’re toast.

  • Anonymous

    I am so tired of churches doing whatever the hell they want to do, flagrantly flaunting laws, and getting away with it.  We have no such luxuries.  It’s bad enough they lie to their flocks in the name of money… er, eternal life.  But to use the political system and law-making bodies to back up their belief in invisible beings is … is… I’m to tired of all of this to even come up with something to finish that sentence.  Help…

  • http://sucktackular.com sucktackular

    I’d like to point out that the “Informed Catholic Citizens” link does not work.

  • Anonymous

    The guy on the right, the old dude in the cowboy hat, voted to give same sex partners of city employees health benefits? Talk about not judging a book by the cover.  

  • Efrique

    he would have done better to call the IRS on them

    To my recollection, the IRS is extremely reluctant to do anything whatever when those laws are breached. Look at the Mormon church involvement in Prop 8 for example.

    (It seems it’s also very easy for churches to dance around the letter of the law on that one, so the organized ones can very easily have their cake and eat it too.)

    How many successful prosecutions have their been, compared to the huge number of apparent breaches?

    • Nazani14

      The religious right, in the guise of the GOP,  has been very good at reducing funding for the IRS, so there are very few audits of any person or business.
      Still, I would advise everyone to take a few minutes to look up the IRS publication on tax-free status for churches.  It’s remarkably easy to find violations, although this may involve actual contact with a church.  Report violations anyway.  Some may find this trollish, but I think it’s time we spoke out against the endless wringing of cash out of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

  • Ylide

    Idea of the day for resolving the economic crisis:  Tax churches.  

    The way the system is SUPPOSED to work in the United States: churches are exempt from taxation and in return they stay out of politics.  This is becoming less and less the case every year, and money is incredible hard to come by these days.  Most large religious organizations are as rich as ever though.  So I say, let them pay their fair share.  They’re already inserting their ideals into our political system, so let them share the burden of society with the rest of us.  

  • David McNerney

    Why am I wrong coming to the conclusion that the only outcome here is that the Supreme Court adjudicates that the tax exemption for churches is unconstitutional – or at least unenforceable?

    That’d be nice.

  • David McNerney

    Why am I wrong coming to the conclusion that the only outcome here is that the Supreme Court adjudicates that the tax exemption for churches is unconstitutional – or at least unenforceable?

    That’d be nice.

  • Lance

    are you people serious churches give americans hope our countries founding fathers used biblical principles to write our laws and constitution. our public schools are tax exempt so no more political signs or any teachings on politics in school should be banned too you people do not understand that the church is trying to keep GODS law and peole like on this message board are being swung by evil sorry to say


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