What is Focus on the Family?
You may think of it as a massive non-profit group dedicated to promoting a very conservative Christian view of the world, one that’s anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-abstinence, and doesn’t even recognize the existence of transgender people.
For a long time, that would have been accurate. But Focus on the Family is no longer just a regular non-profit, kind of like the polar opposite of Planned Parenthood. It is now, legally speaking, a church. Literally a church. They applied to be a church, the IRS gave them the okay, and that’s a big damn deal when you have a budget of nearly $90 million.
Consider this: Every non-profit group in the country has to file a Form 990 report with the IRS explaining (among other things) how much money they took in, how it was spent, and how much their top staffers made in salaries. It’s a public document, too, a way to keep tabs on whether a non-profit really is living up to its mission.
That rule does not apply to churches, even though they’re also technically non-profits. They don’t have to fill out the form or make it public. That means we don’t always know how much money big-name megachurch pastors make — or how much of the congregation’s money goes right into his pocket. We don’t know who’s donating to those churches or where all the money goes.
But as we mentioned this past February, Focus on the Family and the legal defense group Liberty Counsel have both declared themselves churches — with the approval of the IRS.
Katherine Stewart, writing in the New York Times, tells us what this means:
Why would such a group want to call itself a church? Short answer: money. Churches can raise tax-deductible contributions more easily, and with fewer restrictions, than other nonprofits can. They also enjoy additional tax shelters, such as property tax exemptions for clergy members…
Next, churches can also enjoy the benefits of dark money. Unlike other groups, churches are required to disclose essentially nothing about who or what supplies them with their funds. And Focus on the Family, like a number of other groups on the religious right, may worry that its opposition to same-sex relationships will land it on the wrong side of anti-discrimination law. After all, the “moral behavior standards” in their employee guidelines prohibit “homosexual acts.”
In short, Focus on the Family got a huge break from the IRS and it’ll allow them to spread bigotry in a much more secretive way.
How could that sort of thing even happen?
The folks at Right Wing Watch conducted their own investigation into how this happened, and Miranda Blue has more on the actual mechanics.
Focus on the Family told the IRS in 2016 that it needed to be recognized as a church in order to avoid the Affordable Care Act’s mandate on insurance coverage for contraception and other regulations, according to documents that we have obtained from the IRS.
Those documents reveal that the IRS was initially skeptical of Focus’ claims but gave in after Focus’ lawyers insisted that the organization meets most of the tax agency’s criteria for houses of worship and that even questioning their status as a church could violate the First Amendment.
By becoming a church, she writes, Focus on the Family was able to get out of retirement plan regulations, paying unemployment taxes, providing unemployment benefits, giving a public account of their finances, and (likely) the possibility of an IRS audit.But still: As John Oliver so brilliantly pointed out a few years ago, almost anything can become a church as long as it fulfills the IRS’ 14 attributes of a church.
Those include “Recognized creed and form of worship,” “Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,” “Organization of ordained ministers,” “Regular religious services,” etc.
How the hell could Focus on the Family be eligible for any of that?
In the letter [to the IRS], the attorneys claimed that Focus’ 600 employees are both its “ministers” and the members of its “congregation” and that the organization’s “chapelteria” — a cafeteria that also hosts regular staff worship services — is its “place of worship.” The organization’s board of directors are its “elders.” It’s president, Jim Daly, is its “head deacon and elder.” Listeners to the organization’s radio programs are “an extension of its congregation.”
“Without question, Focus on the Family’s members’ daily work is worship,” the attorneys wrote. At another point, they said: “Focus on the Family believes that all of its members are ministers.”
That’s convenient… By the way, you won’t find the words “head deacon” anywhere in Jim Daly’s official bio. He’s still calling himself president of the organization.
When the IRS officials noted that Focus on the Family doesn’t hold “services” on Sundays because all of its staff members are, you know, worshiping at their own churches, the group’s lawyers insisted that was not a problem because even Seventh Day Adventists didn’t gather on Sundays.
When IRS officials noted that Focus on the Family didn’t have “ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study” — one of the IRS’ guidelines for being designated as a church — the lawyers said neither do Quakers.
Critics of religion sometimes joke about how many believers are “Cafeteria Christians.” They pick and choose what to believe, and they leave out all of the inconvenient aspects of their faith.
Well, here’s Focus on the Family, declaring itself a church by stretching the definition of what that means to the point of parody. When other churches met most, but not all, of the IRS’ criteria, Focus on the Family compared themselves to those churches whenever it was convenient. (It’s laughable that the $90 million evangelical group would ever compare itself to the Quakers or Seventh Day Adventists.)
This has consequences, too. As one professor of religious studies told Right Wing Watch, if you declare every staff member a “minister,” that could theoretically mean every single one of them is eligible for a Parsonage Exemption a.k.a. tax-free housing. (The Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing the IRS over that very issue.)
More importantly, though, if Focus on the Family can be declared a church, what’s stopping other non-profit groups from making the same claim?
The IRS approved the request in 2016. This was all under the radar under a blogger noted the change from non-profit to church earlier this year. More investigating by the team at Right Wing Watch uncovered the details.
What will happen from this point forward is anyone’s guess.
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