Why Won’t the IRS Crack Down on Churches That Endorse Political Candidates?

We know churches are tax-exempt. To the tune of $71,000,000,000 nationally. That exemption is contingent in part on the fact that they stay out of politics. They’re not allowed to endorse candidates.

So what happens when a pastor tells his congregation to vote for Mitt Romney? What happens when many, many, many pastors do it all at once?

That’s what’s been happening for years now as part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” (taking place this year on October 7th):

Pastor Jim Garlow will stand before congregants at his 2,000-seat Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, California, on Sunday, October 7, just weeks before the U.S. presidential and congressional elections, and urge his flock to vote for or against particular candidates.

Last year, 539 pastors participated [in Pulpit Freedom Sunday]. This year organizers expect far more. Participants want to force the matter to court as a freedom of speech and religion issue.

“I believe we’re on the early stages of the next great awakening,” Garlow told his congregation last year. “We’re going to see it just sweep across this nation.”

So what has the IRS done about all these egregious violations of the 501(c)(3) regulations?

NOTHING.

… Although the agency has enforced the tax-exemption rules against churches in the past, it has so far ignored the provocations of Freedom Sunday.

The IRS has also been silent about the increasingly aggressive political activity of the U.S. Catholic bishops, who have called for their own Fortnight for Freedom this week. Masses, rallies, and parish bulletins are being mobilized against the Obama administration’s healthcare regulations on contraceptives.

The result of agency inaction, according to tax experts and former IRS staffers, will be a lot more electioneering by leaders of the faithful, in local races as well as national, and to the benefit of Democrats as well as Republicans.

“It will get worse unless the IRS takes action, and they seem reluctant,” said Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University and the longtime lawyer for the Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh.

The IRS did not respond to Reuters questions about its enforcement activities in recent years, or explain why they seem to have ended abruptly in 2009.

These churches are getting away with breaking the rules and flaunting it.

Even so, Garlow not only intends to break the rules, he also plans to spend the next four months recruiting other pastors to do the same as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday. On that day each year since 2008, ministers intentionally try to provoke the IRS. Some even send DVD recordings of their sermons to the agency.

One argument is that the IRS is worried about losing a court challenge. Right now, the mere threat of revoking a church’s tax exemption may be preventing the pastors from endorsing politicians. Unfortunately, it’s an empty threat and the pastors know it. So they’re taking advantage of the IRS as well as all the people who would stand to benefit from the billions of dollars in money the churches owe us as taxpayers.

If the IRS simply enforced their own rules, they would be doing everybody a huge favor. We know most churches don’t give a damn about “equality” in any sense of the word, and we know they’re unable to police themselves on matters of ethics, but we have all the proof we need to revoke their tax exemptions.

Who knew IRS stood for “Ignore Rulebreaking Sermons”?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • mikespeir

    There’s not a lot of practical difference between not enforcing a law and not having a law.

    • LutherW

       And not much different between that and “If the President does it, it is legal”.

  • Gordon Duffy

    None of them should be tax exempt in the first place.

    • 0xabad1dea

      If the rules were ENFORCED it wouldn’t be as much of a tragic waste as in theory they’re spending the money on normal charity stuff and not political propaganda. But geez $71 billion is a lot of money. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

         It would fund 2/3 of  a year’s worth of Afghanistan.

      • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

        Maybe in theory, but in practice, they’re breaking the rules and must lose their tax exempt status, no matter how many charitable deeds they perform.

      • Stev84

        Religious charity tends to be a lot more inefficient than secular charity. Precisely because secular charities actually have to open their books and justify their expenses

      • Stev84

        Religious charity tends to be a lot more inefficient than secular charity. Precisely because secular charities actually have to open their books and justify their expenses

    • A E

      Well, the reason that they ARE is because of this exact situation. It’s sort of a bargain between the church and the government; the government doesn’t tax the church and the church stays out of politics. Unfortunately, the churches are part of the majority, and rational people are the minority. When everyone down the line agrees with the religion, who do you go to when a complaint must be made? We live in nothing more than an unofficial theocracy, propagated by this joke of an educational system.

  • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

    There’s a distinct odour of entitlement coming from these churches and pastors. Smug arrogance coupled with grovelling subservience to an enormous asshole in the sky and His Self-Chosen Proxies on Earth can only end badly.

    • The Dawkins Delusion

      And this comment is exactly why atheism is getting no traction.  The name calling and untruth makes the atheist case weaker than it already is.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

         ”Getting no traction”?  You need to read the polls again.  These antics are the gasping of Christian fish left stranded by the tide.  They’ll take a while to die yet–and they’ll stink for some time too.

      • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

        Ad hominem argument. Argue against the fact that there IS an odor of entitlement coming from these churches and pastors. Argue against the facts set forth by the article. All you’re doing is focusing on his name-calling of your god. And so fucking what? Read the Bible sometime. He’s a bully. If he were real, I still wouldn’t worship the fuck.

        • Voodude

          Beautiful! I think this is why I shake my head the most. I can’t get over the fact that people choose to believe in an asshole.

      • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

        Bullshit. The reason why atheism hasn’t yet achieved a majority in the U.S. is because the U.S. populace in aggregate is culturally predisposed towards believing in Christian delusions.

        It’s richly ironic for a theist like yourself to claim that atheists are all mean and deluded while you bask in your privilege and entitlement, then accuse rational thinkers of being weak-minded. But by all means continue to grovel before your imaginary patriarch; I support your freedom to choose to be sheep.

        • D. Mitchell

          You sound horribly.  Like those people that claim to be Christian and sound so evil you would rather leave the whole religion.  If YOU are what atheism has to offer, I would rather be a sheep.

          • Michael

             What in the world did he say that “sound horribly”?  All he did was lay out the facts in a commonsense manner. The thing that YOU and your ilk can’t stand is people who think for themselves. Your kind are perfectly content to allow your pastor/preacher/priest/imam/whatever do your thinking for you.

          • NickDB

             The fact that being a sheep is a viable option over ANYTHING means you’re not really worth debating anything with.

  • Michael Ryan

    The problem is that the First Amendment might prevent taxing churches, even if they promote a political agenda.  The constitution trumps all other things.

    • Gus Snarp

      That would be quite a stretch.

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      Really? Please, tell us how this is so. Churches are allowed the freedom of speech and practice, NOT the freedom to break the 501(c)3 laws.

    • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

      That would be an awfully convoluted interpretation, given that the First Amendment doesn’t protect anyone from being taxed – does it?

    • ortcutt

       The DC Circuit took this up in 2000 in Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, 211 F.3d 137 (D.C. Cir. 2000).  The court wrote:

      “While plaintiffs probably are correct that the revocation has imposed a burden on their ability to engage in partisan political activity and may deter some people from contributing money to the Church, they have failed to establish that the revocation has imposed a burden on their free exercise of religion. Plaintiffs were offered a choice: they could engage in partisan political activity and forfeit their Section 501(c)(3) status or they could refrain from partisan political activity and retain their Section 501(c)(3) status. That choice is unconnected to plaintiffs’ ability to freely exercise their religion. Plaintiffs therefore have not demonstrated that the IRS substantially burdened their free exercise of religion.”

      There is no Free Exercise case law at the Supreme Court or any other court to support your interpretation.

  • Adam Drake

    Forgive my ignorance, but can someone shed some light on how this is a violation of 501(c)3 rules? 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

       There’s the rub.  The churches can CLAIM to be stopping just short of the line by not saying “don’t vote for Obama.”  Instead they say “vote for the guy with the higher albedo” or some such dodge.  They just want the current activist judges on SCOTUS to be given a shot at obliterating the line entirely.

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      They can’t endorse a political candidate in order to keep their tax-exempt statuses. Plain and simple.

      • Adam Drake

         Got it… They can endorse stances on political issues as part of freedom of speech, but not a specific candidate.  Seems like it would be easy to get around: “We are pro-life… so vote for the candidate who is also pro-life”

        • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

          Exactly. It’s a weasel-y thing to do, but churches (as non-profit charities) CAN endorse political stances or beliefs… just not specific people. I think any involvement in politics should disqualify a 501(c)3 from being tax exempt, but maybe that’s just me.

    • ortcutt

       http://www.irs.gov/charities/charitable/article/0,,id=163395,00.html

  • JanieMiller

    The Catholic Church is actively campaigning against Obama right now. Who will go up against the Catholic Church?

  • Paul C.

    I live in a very low-income town, where there are lots of 501(c)(3) NON-religious charities that aim to help local “at-risk” kids. There are four of these organizations with offices right next to each other in a strip of our downtown. These four 501(c)(3) non-religious orgainzations all have had Obama/Biden yardsigns hanging in their front windows for about 2 months now. I assume your opinion is consistent and you think these four organizations should also lose their tax exempt status for endorsing political candidates? I assume that your opinion isn’t just because they are churches, or just because they are in favor of a Republican, correct? It’s equally wrong for them to promote a Democrat, and equally wrong if it’s not a church? Just want to be sure you are consistent in your opinion.

    • Gus Snarp

      Wow, that would be really stupid of them if it is in fact the case, and I would assume it is also a violation of the law and whatever legal consequences there are should be applied.

      Of course, have you considered the possibility that the landlord put up the signs?

    • ortcutt

       Yes, all 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations should follow the law, whether they are churches or not.

      You’re free to write a letter to the IRS informing them about political campaign activity among 501(c)3s in your town if you like. 

      • Au_catboy

         Of course, Paul will never dream of actually writing such a letter, because his only purpose in making this comment was a desperate hunt for an excuse to scream GOTCHA!!!

        He’s probably lying about the whole thing anyway…

    • ortcutt

       Yes, all 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations should follow the law, whether they are churches or not.

      You’re free to write a letter to the IRS informing them about political campaign activity among 501(c)3s in your town if you like. 

    • Bruce the Moose

      Yup.

  • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

    Why do churches even need money?

    They keep saying that they’re doing “god’s work” (no capital G on purpose, thank you). My question is: What the fuck is “god” doing giving out work to clearly lesser and inferior beings in the first place? Isn’t he a bit of an asshole for doing that when he can simply “speak the word” and make it so? You know, the way he supposedly did everything else before we actually had verifiable records, photography, videography, and just plain old science.

    If they want to keep claiming that they’re doing “god’s work” at this point, I think they’ve had long enough on the old license to have it come up for renewal and provide us with clear examples where “god” actually renews his conviction that he really does want them doing stuff in “his” name. If they can get that on paper and show it to us, in an updated version with evidence which would be admissible in a court of law (meaning nothing which counts as hearsay), then I’m all for renewing that claim for, say, another 10 years – whereupon the lord almighty creator of the universe will, yet again, have to provide updated testimony to show that he wishes to continue this agreement.

    Until then, I think their licenses, on every single bloody front, should be revoked; the idea of “back taxes” should be introduced, and “penalties for false and improvable claims” should be discussed as well.

    Hey, and all they have to do to avoid going to jail is to get their “employer” to sign some new documents, or appear in person, at the trial. I’m absolutely willing to listen to his reasons on the stand.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/ORC3MNN6LJHFDQIEEIIRIHCFVU Rob S

    What stops the FFRF and the ACLU from taking this on?

    • ortcutt

      What standing do they have to sue the IRS for non-enforcement?  There’s generally no taxpayer standing. 

    • ortcutt

      What standing do they have to sue the IRS for non-enforcement?  There’s generally no taxpayer standing. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/ORC3MNN6LJHFDQIEEIIRIHCFVU Rob S

    What stops the FFRF and the ACLU from taking this on?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/XKEAP7EXF6VEPBK23OYML742TM Bob Dennis

    One of the first things that should be done is to remove the Form 990 exempt status for all non-secular 501(c)(3) charities. There is no reason why their financial info cannot be made public, of course, unless they are hiding something.

  • Fake

    Religious cults are feeders for governments.

    They train kids that unquestioning loyalty is the more important than intelligence.

    That’s exactly what governments are looking for in their slaves too.
     

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    The political party that is pro-religion just happens to be the same party that keeps cutting funding for the IRS and makes sure that the SEC is a paper tiger.    When’s the last time you heard about someone being audited?   It used to be fairly common, but there aren’t enough IRS investigators to handle even the most egregious cases of tax evasion.

    “So what is driving Congress to cut auditors and thereby cripple the IRS’s ability to collect owed tax revenues? Some believe it is the rise of corporate power and changes in the campaign finance laws under Citizens United, which allows large organizations such as corporations and unions to spend all they can afford influencing elections.”
    http://ivn.us/2012/01/19/cutting-irs-auditors-short-changes-the-nation/ 

    In other words, yeah, we can see that your house is on fire, but Congress had to save you from those evil big-government unionized firemen.

  • Scottinkga

    The only thing that bothered my about this article is that every example given of a “church-state” violation was a republican/right example. You would have more integrity if had sighted democratic/left violations as well. Obama made a lot of speeches from pulpits in 2008.

  • D. Mitchell

    I thought this was the “friendly atheist”.  I could get behind being angry about funding faith based charities.  I could get behind talking about churches using their pulpit as a podium on public politics.  I can not get behind taxing churches.  There is nothing friendly about what you stated, most churches try to be ethical.  Just because a few Christians ones screwed it up dens’t mean all religions are dirty.

  • Val0221

    Between this and the  now unlimited political contributions that buy public office (Thank you, Supreme Court), I am surprised I am still free to be unemployed.  There is NO way this country is governed by We, the (reasonable and actual) People.  

    Something went horribly wrong somewhere…

  • NotThatGreg

    It didn’t work out well for the IRS when they revoked CoS’s tax exempt status. The group eventually got it back… http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2009/06/new-details-emerge.html

  • Bruce Heerssen

    I wonder if a FOIA request would get an answer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    Colbert just had that Pastor Jim Garlow on his show to talk about this, and pretty much mopped the floor with him.

    “You guys get to use PRE-tax money for political speech. I’d love to have MY political speech subsidized by the government just like that.”


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X