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.


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.

  • invivoMark

    There are reasons against legalization of marijuana? Huh. I’ve never heard any.

    Anyway, I’d help you out, but I live on Pinko Street in Hippieville, right next to the Communist Commons and across from the Wealth Redistribution Center, so I doubt there’ll be so much as a peep about Mitt Romulan coming from any of the nearby churches. He’ll be lucky if his name is even on the ballot.

    • http://www.aramink.com Anne

      I never said there were GOOD reasons.

    • John Horstman

      Unreasons, there are unreasons against the legalization of marijuana.

  • NakedAnthropologist

    Thanks for the info – I’ve seen many an add and church sign that clearly violate tax-exempt status. I’ll be bringing my camera with me everywhere I go now!

    • http://secularnerd.com Richard Seese

      Keep in mind, that churches are allowed “some” leeway into lobbying… this includes church signs like the one for Trinity Baptist Church. Unfortunately the law is on their side until election day.

  • John Horstman

    Awesome, thanks for laying this all out so clearly! I’m spreading the word around and bookmarking this so I can report every violation I encounter.

  • Cunning Pam

    This is all great info, however, it won’t accomplish anything at the moment. Howard Friedman (via Mano Singham) reports that the IRS has “suspended tax audits of churches pending final adoption of IRS rule changes to clarify which high level Treasury official has authority to make a determination under IRC Sec. 7611 that there are reasonable grounds to begin a church tax inquiry.” Perhaps a revisit on the topic would be a good idea, maybe with some idea about how we who would like to follow up on the 501(c)(3)s and others who can’t stick to the rules can keep abreast of the latest developments in this.

    Thank you for the information about the process; I’ve always wondered exactly how one goes about reporting violations of this type. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that one day soon, such reports will be investigated and acted upon.

    Howard Friedman’s post: http://religionclause.blogspot.com/2012/10/irs-has-suspended-church-audits-until.html

    Mano Singham’s post: http://freethoughtblogs.com/singham/2012/10/22/irs-temporarily-suspends-audits-of-churches/

    • http://www.aramink.com Anne

      A suspension of investigations does not equate a refusal to investigate, ever. As I understand the reason for the suspension, some additional rulemaking is necessary for the IRS to know who gets to make the decision about “reasonable belief.”

      Go ahead and submit violations. If we do our part, there should be some action.

  • UsingReason

    I believe the restrictions on political speech for 501(c)(3) organizations applies specifically to candidates for public offices and that speech about issues is not restricted:

    “A charity’s issue based message should be no more limited during an election campaign than it is during any other time of the year. The fact that candidates have aligned themselves on one or another side of an issue should not impact a charity’s ability to reach the public with a pure issue message,”


    • http://www.aramink.com Anne

      There’s a difference between taking a stance on an issue and telling people how to vote. Churches can say, for example, that their interpretation of the Bible does not support homosexuality, but to tell their adherents to vote against a ballot measure to allow gay marriage violates the rules.

      • UsingReason

        If you could point out that rule I would appreciate it, all research I have done on this issue always hinges on the organization advocating a vote for a candidate or a slate of candidates. The use of their church sign for lobbying purposes concerning legislation or issues certainly is not ‘substantial’ as far as time or money goes so will be allowed by everything I have ever read.

        “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’m really struggling to understand this statement when the IRS codes go into great detail about limited lobbying and how these organizations can engage in discussions of issues and legislation.

      • http://marriageequality.org Thom Watson

        Anne, I believe you’re wrong about this specific portion of your assertions. 501(c)(3) organizations are in fact not legally prohibited from initiating or promoting specific ballot initiatives, nor for advocating a specific yes or no vote on such initiatives, as long as their involvement doesn’t directly or indirectly also demand a vote for a specific candidate, and as long as the resources they put into such lobbying do not exceed certain financial thresholds, and as long as they do not constitute a “substantial part” (as defined by the IRS) of their activities. See, for example, bottom of page 14, top of page 15 of this IRS presentation: http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/rulesforeosduringanelectionyearscript6-9-08.pdf And this 2nd IRS presentation defines the differences between campaigning, lobbying and advocacy, and notes that lobbying — which is where advocating specific votes on ballot measures falls — is permitted to the same limited degree noted above in terms of how substantial the lobbying is. Another source, nonprofitvote.org also notes what is and isn’t permitted for 501(c)(3)’s: http://www.nonprofitvote.org/download-document/ballot-measure-en.html

        • http://marriageequality.org Thom Watson

          Sorry, forgot to include the link to the second IRS presentation to which I referred: http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/election_year_phone_forum_slides.pdf

        • http://marriageequality.org Thom Watson

          For full disclosure, I’m part of the national team (though non-paid) of a 501(c)(3) that engages specifically on the issue of marriage equality within the U.S. I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve spoken with our legal advisors about this, in order to be sure that we’re following IRS regulations, and our understanding — per the IRS — is that we legally can and do encourage people to vote against anti-gay initiatives and for pro-marriage equality ballot measures. Our primary work is education and advocacy, so the lobbying we do on specific measures meets the IRS’s “substantial part” test, just as I believe it does for those churches that take the opposing position to ours on such measures.

        • http://marriageequality.org Thom Watson

          Finally, I’ll note that the FFRF takes the same position on this issue: http://ffrf.org/faq/state-church/item/14005-churches-and-political-lobbying-activities

          “Ballot Initiatives or Referendum
          Churches have been actively involved in many recent controversial ballot initiatives and referenda in numerous states across the country. Under the law, this is permissible activity because ballot initiatives are considered to be “legislation” and, thus, are lobbying activities, not “political” activity. For example, a priest is allowed to tell his congregation to support a referendum denying equal marriage rights to gay partners, and to include church support or opposition to referenda in church bulletins. Again, however, if there is substantial time or money spent on this by the church, that could be problematic.”

          • http://www.aramink.com Anne

            The “substantial time” question is one for the investigator to determine. There are some churches that spend what I would consider to be substantial effort to affect the outcomes of elections of ballot initiatives. The people who make the complaints point out possible violations; it is the job of the IRS to investigate. The more proof we can give the IRS of the extent of a church’s political activity, the better.

  • http://secularnerd.com Richard Seese

    I would like to point out Anne, that our church that we are protesting (Trinity Baptist Church) is getting away with it, because the 501(c)(3) allows them some leeway into “some” lobbying… it’s sadly not against the law for them to do this. I’ve talked to FFRF, I’ve talked to the IRS, I’ve talked to accountants, etc… The law is on their side until election day. If that sign remains on election day, then we have them on campaigning within 100 Feet of a polling place… but until that happens, we have nothing.

    • http://www.aramink.com Anne

      When I spoke with the IRS about it in preparation for this blog post, I was told to submit the complaint. My advice is to keep complaining.

      • http://secularnerd.com Richard Seese

        The fact still remains, they are allowed to put anything they want on their signs, as long as they don’t dedicate a certain amount of money to lobby for their opinion. However, come time for when the election starts, that’s when they start to break the law. Believe me, if it was up to me, I’d pull their tax exempt status on anything breaking the separation of church and state… until there’s new legislation passed that makes what they are doing illegal, we are mere ants complaining to the big giants stepping on our ant farm.

        • http://secularnerd.com Richard Seese

          And as clarification, as long as it isn’t a candidate, and it’s for a piece of legislature, they are allowed to put anything on their signs.