FFRF attorney’s Calif. op-ed urges IRS action against electioneering preacher

Headshot of FFRF attourney on staff Chris Line

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line has written an op-ed for several California newspapers asking the IRS to act against a megachurch preacher’s unconstitutional electioneering.

“As an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I cannot endorse or oppose any candidate for public office,” he writes in a piece published in the Los Angeles Daily News, the Orange County Register and other papers. “I can tell people that they should vote, but I canʼt tell them who to vote for or against. Thatʼs because FFRF is a 501(c)(3) and the Internal Revenue Code states that to retain its 501(c)(3) status an organization cannot ‘participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.’”

Line delved into the mishandling of frequent politicking cases that FFRF has been working to fight against in the past, and expresses concern that the IRS will continue to sit idly by:

While we take the privileges of our 501(c)(3) status very seriously and follow the law, Pastor Jack Hibbs does not. And heʼs not alone. Church leaders across the country regularly violate the law by endorsing political candidates. They reap all the benefits of tax exemptions and the ability to provide tax deductions to their donors, while openly mocking and defying the IRS.

Hibbs exemplifies this carefree attitude toward the law and the responsibilities that churches have as tax-exempt organizations. Last month, Hibbs used his Sunday service to endorse a political candidate, telling his congregation to “vote for Steve Garvey” in the upcoming California primary. …

While Hibbs is free to endorse candidates in his capacity as a private citizen not representing his church, he knows that is not what he was doing. He not only admitted to violating the law, but he subsequently removed that part of the sermon before posting it online. Thatʼs why I wrote the IRS last month on behalf of FFRF urging it to revoke the tax-exempt status of Hibbs’ church.

Unfortunately, heʼs got good reason to believe that he will not face any consequences. After all, he got away with it in 2022 after openly endorsing Larry Elder, a candidate hoping to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom in a failed recall election attempt. FFRF reported that violation to the IRS, as it does dozens of others every year, but the IRS continues to allow churches to flout the law. In 2022, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica detailed the failure of the IRS to enforce the law against churches, highlighting the alarming fact that only two churches have been punished for violating the law in the past 70 years.

Line concludes: “This is something that Americans don’t want. Four out of five Americans oppose politicking from the pulpit, according to a 2016 survey by LifeWay Research. Fully 79 percent oppose pastores endorsing candidates during a church service. More than eight in 10 believe it’s inappropriate for churches to use their resources for political campaigns, and many church leaders themselves don’t want to deal with the burden of endorsing candidates and alienating members of their congregations.”

You can read the full op-ed here.

This column is part of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s initiative to engage with pertinent issues at the national and the state levels and spread the messages of freethought and nontheism to a broader audience.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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