Another Church Taunts the IRS by Endorsing a Candidate; the IRS Does Nothing About It

The Church in the Valley in Leakey, Texas currently has a church sign up that reads “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim! The capitalist, not the communist!”:

[Pastor Ray Miller] said he feels strongly about the upcoming presidential election and feels the message on the marquee speaks for itself.

While the very small and quiet town of Leakey is now in the spotlight, some business owners are embracing the attention.

“I love it. Even if it’s bad attention, bring it on. Come to town, see what it’s about,” Damon White said. “Not everyone hates Obama, not everyone loves him; not everyone hates Romney, or loves Romney. Come see for yourself.”

The problem isn’t the pastor lying about President Obama. I mean, the Bible condemns it and all, but we can’t expect a pastor to know that.

The problem is that the IRS has just been letting these things slide. Churches are considered non-profits and they don’t pay taxes on their income. That means they can’t endorse politicians.

We saw Christian pastors taunt the IRS on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” earlier this month — pastors across the country endorsed candidates because they think they have a right to do so.

The IRS is fully aware of this practice.

What they should do is revoke every participating church’s tax exemption. Instead, they look the other way and do nothing. It’s money that the churches have no right keeping, but unless they get challenged, they’re not going to give it up.

We can’t expect Christians to do the right thing. The IRS needs to do its job.

(Thanks to Kevin for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Kansastalks

    Thanks for sharing this. How do we get them to do their job?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=123400843 Stu Minnis

    Is there nothing that can be done to provoke the IRS into action in such situations? It’s easy to assume that they won’t touch it for fear of political backlash, but isn’t there some legal recourse for concerned citizens when an executive branch agency willfully fails to enforce its mandate? Is there any legal watchdog group actively challenging this passivity?

  • Octoberfurst

     It irks me to no end that these churches are getting away with this BS.  It’s like they are giving the finger to the Federal government and saying, “Go ahead, I DARE you to take away my tax exemption.”  The IRS should be coming down hard on these idiots.
      But in a way I can understand why the Obama administration would be telling the IRS not to go after these morons. You know what will happen as soon as the IRS takes away tax exemptions for those breaking the law right?  They’ll rush to Fox News and whine about how they are being persecuted by the big bad government and then the right-wing media will be calling Obama a “Christ-hater”. Of course Obama would not want this right before the election so he is giving them a pass.  It’s wrong of course but I get it.
      The thing is those right-wing churches WANT a big fight right before this election so they can rally the troops so to speak.  It’s all very underhanded. What I would loved to see is the IRS coming down hard on those churches AFTER Obama is re-elected. I can just hear the cries of indignation now. All I would say is, “Oh well, sucks to be you!”

    • Raising_Rlyeh

      Not only would they rush to Fox News and whine about persecution, but they would also file a law suite, main objective of Alliance Defense Fund, and bring this all the way to the Supreme Court. Based on the current makeup on the court the ban on endorsement of politicians would probably be ruled unconstitutional and then it will get worse.

      Having said that I say bring it on and sick the IRS on them. 

      • Randomfactor

         Congress has hamstrung the IRS on this.  The IRS just recently declared a moratorium on church audits until they get some clarification as to how the (Republican-controlled) Congress wants them to proceed.  Of course, that pushes it beyond the election, which was a given anyway.

  • brianmacker

    While they are at it they should revoke tax exempt status from all organizations. Plus the government should not provide grants to any private organization of any kind, profit or non-profit.

    • Pedro Lemos

      Yes, I never quite understood this idea either. If schools, hospitals, research institutes and other kind of organizations that certaily provide much more benefits to society than churches have to pay taxes, why churches don´t?
      I already heard the excuse that taxing them would violate the right of free exercise of religion. But if paying taxes doesn´t impede the fore mentioned institutions of doing their jobs, why would it do so with the churches? Besides, they profit, don´t they? How can you profit if your mission is solely supposed to do charity? If there was any money left at the end of the year, shouldn´t  it be automatically reverted to the mission of doing charity? I guess in the eyes of modern states, building ultra-expensive cathedrals is the same as doing charity…

      • brianmacker

        I see nothing wrong with your reasoning. I can see special taxes being interpreted as an infringement on religion, but not the general taxes everyone pays for common services like military and police protection and court system. Churches do benefit from such services.

        Also the argument that churches provide services that the government would otherwise need to provide doesn’t stand up if someone argues, as many on the right do, that the government shouldn’t be providing those services.

    • Coyotenose

       No. Many private organizations save you money, and directly serve the public interest, which is the purpose of government. Planned Parenthood, for example.

  • SJH

    What is the legal reasoning behind preventing tax-exempt organizations from stating a political opinion. I am not sure I agree with that law, whatever it is. Can someone please clarify?

    • http://aboutkitty.blogspot.com/ Cat’s Staff

      Because if they want to be involved endorsing or opposing candidates they should be a 527 organization, not a 501 c 3.  A 501 c 3 CAN lobby a certain amount, as long as it’s related to its mission.  So our local atheist group can go down to the state capitol and lobby for separation of state and church issues (although in order to do that you need to file and itemize that activity, and most churches don’t want to file).

      They can’t endorse OR OPPOSE candidates…so technically this sign breaks the rules twice.

      • SJH

         Thank you. So what is the reasoning for not allowing them to state their opinion? What does that have to do with taxes? Should one forfeit their right to speak because they do not pay taxes? Again, I’m not sure I understand the logic. Please explain.

        • Glasofruix

           If they want to be politically active (endorsing, promoting etc candidates) they have to pay taxes. To say it in more comprehensible terms, if they want to ride the rollercoaster they have to actually pay for it.

          • brianmacker

            Does political activity include the promotion and opposition of the funding of political causes, businesses, and/or other politically supported activities?

            • Glasofruix

               I guess so.

        • Marco

          It’s called a Quid Pro Quo.  I am not familiar with the origin of the law, but it seems fair to me. The state is giving a big concession to the religious community by letting them avoid taxation. In exchange the state requires them to stay out of government business. 

          If they want to campaign, then they should be taxed like everyone else. In fact, as far as I am concerned, let them campaign. Let them pay taxes too. We could use the money.

          • brianmacker

            Concession? I always viewed it as a favor. Originally it had no such strings attached. It was what, around the 50′s the string was attached?

          • SJH

             I have a couple of issues with this line of thinking.
            First, wouldn’t this mean that, by not paying taxes, you forfeit your right to be involved with politics. So, to be fair, then poor people should also not be involved in the political process? Seems inconsistent.
            Second, is it a privilege for non-profits to avoid taxation or is a privilege for the state to collect our money in the first place? Probably depends on your perspective.

            • Glasofruix

               Poor people actually pay taxes…

              • SJH

                They don’t because they get it all back and then some in their tax return. Unless you are talking about sales tax

                • amycas

                   I don’t get sales or property taxes back. I also don’t get back my taxes paid to ss and medicare/medicaid.
                  Nice try though.

                • Isilzha

                  You do realize that churches don’t pay sales tax, right?

                • Phil

                  And if their income doesn’t rise to the level where they are even required to file?????

                • Baby_Raptor

                  They still pay taxes on everything they buy. And they may also pay state taxes. 

                • Dan

                  You do know that their are lots of other taxes than just Federal income, right? Most poor people pay sales, property (or indirectly pay their landlord’s property tax), payroll, Medicare, and Social Security taxes. In fact many poor people pay a combined tax rate greater than Mitt Romney.

                  Paying taxes like every other group that endorses conadidates would not limit their freedom of speech any more than it does my freedom of speech that I pay taxes. The rule is that if you want special treatment from the government, if you want the government to subsidize your activity, that there are limits on your activity.

                • Earl G.

                  Yes!  
                  What is with the righties pretending like the poor don’t pay anything?

            • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

              A poor individual is not a church organization for starters. Wanna try again with an actual argument?

            • amycas

               Governments can’t really function without some form of revenue. Taxation is the most logical form, seeing as how we’re paying the government to maintain order and promote the general welfare of society. So yes, the government provides those things (for the most part) so we should pay our taxes. I guess if you don’t want to pay taxes you can move to a deserted island that has no infrastructure or order maintained by anything.

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

              Look at it this way. While churches don’t pay taxes, MY taxes go to paying their share of keeping the nation going. I’m already pissed because I’m an atheist and don’t use churches, but I’ll just suck it up and live with it because in a democracy you don’t always get your way.

              Now when churches start getting involved in politics to serve their own interests ON MY TAX DOLLAR I get *extremely* pissed. It’s two layers of inequity. Churches can lobby all they like, but they had damn well better be paying taxes.

        • machintelligence

          If they lose their 501 C (3) status then all contributions that are made to them no longer count as charitable donations and are not deductible on the donors tax form. The church may also have to pay property taxes and sales taxes on things that they purchase.
          Endorsing a candidate is their right — not paying taxes is a privilege granted to non profits that are not politically active. 
          The National Rifle Association is a good example of a non-profit that is not a 501 C (3) organization (although they once were). They decided lobbying was more important than a tax exemption.

        • brianmacker

          The history of the actual amendment as added by LBJ in 1954 suggests there was no “reasoning” behind the amendment, other than silencing opponents.

          • TheBlackCat

            Which history would that be?  And which opponents would that be?  And why would those opponents be preferentially harmed by such a rule. 

            Note that this was in the 1950′s, back when the Democratic party was more the conservative party, and decades before the close ties between the religious right and the Republican party which were largely established under Reagen.

            • brianmacker

              It’s called the Johnson Amendment. Look it up. He was getting even with a nonprofit group for opposing his election.

        • TheBlackCat

           Because we don’t want lobbying groups to set up fake churches to avoid paying taxes.  It is the same reason we don’t let churches use their property as a private business, we don’t want businesses to use churches to avoid paying taxes. 

  • http://v1car.wordpress.com/ The Vicar

    Off-topic, but: when I loaded this page my browser put up the standard “login required” dialog — the one that’s built into the page to deal with website which require credentials in the HTTP request, not part of the page content — for some site whose domain started with “mybpstation” (I didn’t really look closely), and there’s an ad for BP gas in the sidebar. Hemant, if you have some form of contact with your advertisers, could you pass along to them that they’re doing something wrong?

    • http://v1car.wordpress.com/ The Vicar

      Slight update: it came up again, and the specific domain asking for authentication is “mybpstation.gyrohsrclients.com”.

      • smrnda

         Happened to me too for a while, and I think it came up on another blog on patheos as well.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The Church in the Valley in Leakey, Texas currently a church sign up…

    Verb.

    • brianmacker

      Where’s your subject? I see your predicate.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Thanks — Fixed!

  • Bryce Perry

    I read that the reason the IRS doesn’t revoke the tax exempt status of these churches is that they’re afraid they would lose the lawsuit filed by the church that would surely follow. As soon as the SCOTUS says “no, churches can say whatever they want, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, can’t hold that against them!” then the genie will be out of the bottle and there won’t be any way to prevent ALL of them (not just podunk little redneck churches such as the one in Leakey, TX population 359) from saying “GOD SAYS VOTE REPUBLICAN OR BURN IN HELL!”

    • Sailor

       I don’t think this is free speech issue in the sense you mean it. No one stops them saying what they want. The question is whether this free speech should be free as in tax-free, and here I think they are breaking the bounds, but I am no lawyer

    • amycas

       If they lose that lawsuit, then every 501 (c)3 can then say whatever they want about politics and candidates. This law doesn’t only apply to churches. It applies to all 501 (c)3 organizations.

      • Randomfactor

         Except that it’s Congressionally-mandated that it’s harder to bring a case against a church than any other 501c3

  • Mitzjob

    And I bet they’d really like to say: Vote for the White Guy not the Nigger….

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=705066677 Desiree Bell-Fowlks

      Bingo!!

  • ConureDelSol

    AFA participates in Pulpit Freedom Sunday and they actually have legions of Christian lawyers ready to defend them if the IRS actually does anything.  Still, I don’t really see what good a lawyer would do when you are in clear violation of the law.  

    Personally, I don’t believe most churches deserve tax exemption anyway…

  • Greg1466

    We could solve the whole problem if we just made churches subject to taxes in general.  They could declare whatever amount of money they actually use for charity work just like everyone else.

  • Antinomian

    Aren’t there whistle-blower laws for tax cheats and scofflaws? Just think of the money that could be donated to worthwhile charities instead of bullshit..

    Go get ‘em FFRF!

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    But … why would the IRS act so definitively against this practice? They have no reason to. Ultimately they’re part of the Executive branch and report to the president. We already know he’s afraid of religionists and intimidated by them (as are most politicians in this country, of whatever party). Why would he want his own agency to take them on and alienate them? There’s no way he’d stand for it … not even if anyone at the IRS wanted to do it, which they don’t.

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

    As Stephan Colbert said to the leader of Pulpit Freedom Sunday, they are having their political speech subsidized by the government.

  • Sharon Hypatiia

    This is not a free speech issue – it is a separation of church and state issue.
    Churches can promote a political cause (i.e. Tell people to vote against an abortion rights law)  but not a party or candidate.  Churches get their non-profit status for specific reasons – to serve
    the religious needs of their members – NOT as political action groups.
    The IRS has dozens of non-profit categories,  including for political advocacy. If a religious group wants to support a specific party or candidate, they can form a non-profit group “Mormons for McCain” or “Catholics for Clinton”, separate from the church. 
    One big issue is that a church gets a special status, in that it is not required to file taxes, as does every other non-profit (even if it pays no taxes).  There is no overview or accountability as to where the money it receives  comes from or goes to, except with its membership, who aren’t likely to question their minister too closely. After all, he holds the keys to their eternal life.  Make him angry and you might be turfed from the church that can save your soul from damnation!
    Before we demand that churches PAY taxes, I would just like to see a requirement that they FILE taxes like every other non-profit. The filing is a public document that ANYONE has a right to see.
    That might do a lot to expose the rotten underbelly of a lot of these churches, especially the non-mainstream ones that are started by a con-artist who is in it for the money and makes up his theology as he goes along. (Think of the non-denominational mega- churches run by the likes of Crefelo Dollar.)  “Mainstream” churches at least have an established hierarchy that they answer  to in terms of theology and money matters.

  • DougI

    The article is from the 18th, so there’s no indication of how long the sign has been up.  The IRS doesn’t immediately send a group out to shut down the church.  It has to go through a legal process which takes time.  The investigation has to be approved by a top official in the IRS (if it was just a regular non-profit then any IRS agent could approve the investigation but churches have special rights).  Then the pastor is given a list of questions to fill out and return.  Then everything is reviewed.  The process can be time consuming, especially if the church delays.  Not to mention, the Republicans have underfunded the IRS so they don’t have a plethora of agents available to look at the numerous crimes the churches commit, especially in an election year.  The best thing to do is have large organizations or numerous people send in complaints so it gets moved up in priority.

    The major problem is that hundreds of churches do this every election so the IRS is overwhelmed.

    • Anonymous Atheist

      “The IRS doesn’t immediately send a group out to shut down the church.”

      For the past 3+ years, the IRS hasn’t sent anyone out to investigate and tax (not ‘shut down’) *any* churches.

      • DougI

        I guess it has been three years since the IRS investigated a church I complained about.  They eventually revoked their status on my final complaint I issued a couple months ago.  I do find that the county is a lot quicker to act on the tax issue than the IRS and they don’t have as many loopholes to go through as the IRS.

  • http://www.facebook.com/abb3w Arthur Byrne

    According to this,  “the Internal Revenue Service has temporarily suspended tax audits of churches pending final adoption of IRS rule changes [...] necessitated by a 2009 Minnesota federal district court ruling”.

    I suspect if President Obama wins, there will be more than a few audits (which will be characterized as partisan retaliation by the right); and if former Governor Romney wins, the Church audits will be suppressed by executive fiat (which will not be considered partisan favoritism by the right).

    • TheBlackCat

       Obama has been bending over backwards to avoid being seen as anti-Chrisitian, I sincerely doubt he would do anything at all about this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tex-Taylor/1279760816 Tex Taylor

    And yet, I didn’t hear peep one from any of you listed here about the tax free status concerning Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger  campaigning for the entire world to see when they danced upon the stage at Trinity United Church in 2008, openingly campaigning for your messiah Barack Obama.In fact, this has been going on for years in black Baptist Churches throughout the South, and I don’t remember you raising loud voice in any fashion for the last 40 years.If you’re going to peacock this issue, make sure you apply it evenly across the board – irrespective of you politic.The disconnect, duplicity and double standards are once again glaring for those who worship at the altar of progressive politic.   And that is your religion, whether you recognize that fact, or not.

  • smrnda

    I can never get the “Jesus is a capitalist” one, I mean, seriously, Jesus sounds like a communist, and the story of Ananais and Sapphira in the book of Acts (names correct?) who were struck dead because they didn’t sign over ALL of their private property to be communally managed by the church? Sounds like enforced Communism to me, and though I’m on the left I’d argue it’s unreasonable to demand ALL property shared in common with NO individual property. 

  • Ammon

    Political groups are not tax exempt. Churches are. If the church was raising money (where donors got tax deductions), and buying ads endorsing candidates that would be one thing. Putting an endorsement on a sign, or publicly endorsing someone is no form of tax evasion in my opinion.


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