Lesson One: Become an Atheist Activist Today

 

It’s election time again, which means that now is the perfect time for atheist activism. I know a way for you to become an effective atheist activist without ever leaving the safety of your keyboard, and I’m going to share it with you.

Come on – let me see a show of hands – how many of you reading WWJTD know of a church or other religious organization in your community that tells its members how to vote on issues? Raise those hands higher. I can’t see you. Okay, now look around. See all the hands waving in the air? There are lots of them.

It’s time to do something about this.

Did you know that most nonprofit organizations – including churches – cannot endorse candidates, tell their members how to vote, publicly support one side of an issue, or lobby? I know. It’s stunning. You’d never know it from the way so many of them behave. But if they lobby, electioneer, or outright tell their congregation how to vote, they’re supposed to lose their coveted tax-exempt status.

Because it’s illegal for them to engage in politics. Not illegal in the criminal sense, but in the sense that they enjoy a favored status in exchange for a promise that they will not engage in politics. So, when they break that promise, they should lose their favored status. The problem is, they tend not to. The IRS just doesn’t have enough proof against most of these churches.

I want to do something about that. I want you to do something about that. And I can tell you how to do it in a legal, above-board, non-confrontational way.

We can make these particular churches pay taxes just like everyone else – because if they blur the line between church and state, they are supposed to lose their tax-exempt status. At the very least, getting a letter from the IRS warning them that their political activity is dangerously close to the line may inspire them to cut it out.

Not the right volume. Some churchman must've stolen Volume 16 from my shelf.

Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code gives most nonprofit organizations, including churches, their tax-exempt status. Almost all churches are organized as non-profits and approved under 501(c)(3). That’s how tithes and offerings and other donations to them are tax-deductible. But, that special status comes at a cost: no 501(c)(3) organization may endorse, support, or oppose any candidate for public office. They cannot make contributions to political campaigns, and they cannot make any public statements for or against a candidate. They cannot take sides on any issue. Violation of this requirement will cause the IRS to strip the organization of its tax-exempt status.

Now, some minor politicking is permitted, but strict rules apply. No fundraising can happen at the event where the church or other 501(c)(3) organization does its politicking. If one candidate is invited, then all of the candidates running for that position – not just the one favored by the organization – must have an equal opportunity to be heard at the event. And most importantly, the organization cannot give even a hint as to which candidate it supports.

These rules also apply to ballot initiatives, referendums, and other matters voted on by the public. They apply to laws and constitutional amendments presented to the people for their vote. Gay marriage, abortion rights, gambling – all of these are issues churches like to weigh in on, and their publicly stated positions are grounds for them to lose their tax-exemption.

Why doesn’t the IRS do something? Because the IRS doesn’t have the time or the manpower to go around the country looking for these kinds of violations. It takes effort, proof, and a complaint to get them going. The only thing they routinely investigate without a complaint being filed are income tax returns, randomly selected for audit.

The IRS will investigate a church or other nonprofit organization if one of its higher-ranking agents has a “reasonable belief” that the organization’s activity violates its 501(c)(3) restrictions. It’s up to us to provide a basis for that reasonable belief, because the IRS won’t police each and every church. Thank the FSM, we are perfectly capable of recognizing and supplying concrete proof of these violations, so as to create that “reasonable belief” in the minds of the upper echelon of the Internal Revenue Service. We non-theists are all about reasonable beliefs!

He might enjoy himself too much in the White HouseRevocations of these tax-exemptions actually can happen. They don’t happen as often as we might like, but it’s up to us to help change that. As far as I know, the tax-exempt status of only one church was ever revoked, although the tax-exempt status of other nonprofits violating this rule have been revoked over 40 times.

The notorious case of the IRS pulling the tax-exempt plug on a church is Branch Ministries v. Rossotti. Branch Ministries and its church bought a full-page ad in the Washington Post and USA Today opposing Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election. The advertisement clearly said that the church had placed the ad, and it solicited tax-deductible contributions to help pay for the ad to be run in additional newspapers in large markets. The ad claimed that Clinton supported abortion on demand, homosexuality and the distribution of condoms to teenagers in public schools. It cited various Biblical passages and said, “Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws … How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?”

The bigger question for Branch Ministries became, “Since we’re overtly supporting a particular candidate and letting the world know about it, how can we maintain our status as a 501(c)(3) organization?” Answer: It could not.

How do we make sure that more churches are investigated, and that more churches pay taxes? Not every church will do us the favor of being so blatant about its political activities. Therefore, we must report what we see. We have to give the IRS proof to support that reasonable belief that a church or nonprofit group engages in political activities. They won’t self-report these violations any more than an illegal immigrant will self deport. It’s up to us to do it through the available legal channels.

The IRS needs documentation. It can get that documentation from any number of sources, but the most reliable are:

  • Newspaper or magazine articles or ads
  • Television and radio reports
  • Internet (yes, the IRS apparently believes everything it reads there)
  • Voters guides created and/or distributed by the church
  • Documents on file with the IRS (e.g. a Form 990-T filed by the church)
  • Church records in the possession of third parties or informants

That last bit is where we come in. The IRS says that information obtained from informants must be reliable, so we need to do more than just send an email to complain. Proof will get the church’s tax-exempt status revoked. Send photos, audio recordings, video recordings, news articles – anything that provides independent proof that the activity has happened. Heck, if you can tolerate sitting through a religious service close to election day, go to church and record the pastor or priest’s political rants. You know they’re giving them in pulpits across the nation.

Here’s an example of how it’s done.

Trinity Baptist church Hates Pain Relief

Actual Church Sign at 702 Church St., Benton, AR
Photo taken October 23, 2012 (source)

There’s a church near where I live that is also a polling place. Churches as polling places are an issue for another day, so let’s leave that for now and focus on something even more in-your-face egregious.

One of the ballot initiatives in our area has to do with medical marijuana. This particular church has taken it upon itself to say that legalization of marijuana for medical purposes is a moral issue. There are reasons for and against legalization of marijuana that I won’t get into here – whether or not the ballot initiative should pass isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about whether someone’s church should be allowed to tell them how to vote on the issue.

This church was featured on my local news a few days ago. I have a link to the news report, and I have IRS Form 13909, which can be downloaded as a PDF file or completed online. This is the complaint form to use when you see nonprofit organizations engaged in the political process. If you bookmark no other IRS form, bookmark this one.

The form asks for the basic information about the church. Its name and address are easy enough to find with Google, but the form also needs the church’s EIN, or tax identification number. You can usually find that number on the website of the National Center for Charitable Statistics. Now, this particular church doesn’t appear in that list. This probably means that it is simply holding itself out to be a church under Section 508 of the Internal Revenue Code, without ever going through the 501(c)(3) approval process. No matter – the same rules apply. If it’s going to go around telling folks how to vote, it’s going to lose its tax-exempt status.

The rest of the form is fairly self-explanatory, but the instructions are attached to the form at the link I’ve provided. Once you’ve completed the form, it can be emailed to the IRS at eoclass@irs.gov; mailed to IRS EO Classification, Mail Code 4910DAL, 1100 Commerce Street Dallas, TX 75242-1198; or faxed to 214-413-5415.

Easy, peasy.

Do this, and become a law-motivated atheist activist today.

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Today’s post is my first for WWJTD. I’m a lawyer, so I intend to post on WWJTD about legal issues facing the non-theist community. Got a question? Email me at anne@aramink.com. You can see my regular blog at www.aramink.com, where I write book reviews, ruminate on Life, the Universe, and Everything, and occasionally – frequently – rant about Stuff.

About Anne

Civil rights activist Anne Orsi is one of the spokespeople for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and is the primary organizer of Reason in the Rock, a conference on science, secularism and skepticism. Got a question? Email her at anne@aramink.com. She's a lawyer but may not be licensed in your state. Sending her an email or reading her blog posts does not create an attorney-client relationship. Find Anne on Twitter as @aramink, and read her regular blog at www.aramink.com.


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