FFRF reports electioneering churches to IRS


The Freedom From Religion Foundation has reported several allegations of unlawful pulpit politicking to the Internal Revenue Service so far this year.

FFRF, a national state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., in August voluntarily dismissed a high-profile federal lawsuit against the IRS, challenging its failure to enforce its own electioneering restrictions against churches. FFRF dismissed its suit after the IRS indicated that it had resumed flagging churches involved with political intervention. FFRF may refile its suit against the IRS in the future if there is evidence the IRS resumes looking the other way when tax-exempt churches violate the law.

Prior to Tuesday’s elections, FFRF passed onto the IRS nine complaints about churches improperly endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. FFRF is investigating further complaints that came to light this week.

All 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including churches, are prohibited from intervening in any election or engaging in partisan politicking, such as by supporting or opposing specific candidates. “The regulations ensure that 501(c)(3) groups do not abuse the public trust, since tax exemption is a privilege and a form of public subsidy,” explains FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Many electioneering complaints stem from pastors who purposely violate electioneering restrictions from the pulpit as part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual event put on by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian Right group. ADF and their allies argue that religious groups should be given special treatment, and be allowed to engage in partisan activity while maintaining their tax-exempt status. Many pastors, at the urging of ADF, have sent videos of their lawbreaking sermons directly to the IRS, hoping to incite a legal challenge to rescind the 1954 law against politicking by 501(c)(3) churches. According to ADF, more than 1,700 pastors participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday in October.

Pastors reported to the IRS by FFRF include Skyline Church Pastor Jim Garlow of La Mesa, Calif. In a sermon, Garlow described a letter sent by some Christian right groups to Republican leadership opposing certain Republican candidates across the country, including Carl MeMaio, running for California’s 52nd Congressional District. DeMaio is gay. Garlow encouraged his parishioners to go one step further and vote for DeMaio’s Democratic opponent as part of what he called “defensive tactical voting.” The contest is still a toss-up, with DeMaio leading as of the latest election reports.

Other flagrant violations have come in the form of “sample ballots” provided by churches with “suggested candidates” filled in or highlighted. Legacy Church in Albuquerque, N.M., handed out such ballots to their parishioners along with actual campaign materials for certain candidates. Three candidates were also introduced during the church’s Oct. 11 service.

Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., set out “Conservative Primary Ballots” in August. The ballots indicated how liberal or conservative each candidate was judged to be, placing stars next to the most conservative candidate in each race. The church apparently thought that a small disclaimer at the bottom negated the blatant endorsement of candidates: “This is a Pro-Family, Pro-Life, Conservative Ballot. It is not represented by any religious organization. (Churches cannot endorse candidates.)”

Several other religious organizations, including Habitat for Humanity in Winter Garden, Fla., were reported for posting political campaign signs on their property. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, one of five FFRF staff attorneys, handled the complaints.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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