Lost in the political outrage over the Internal Revenue Service’s alleged targeting of the tea party for scrutiny is the IRS’s failure to go after church politicking, most of it by Christian Right pastors. Where’s the congressional fury over the fact that the IRS has not been enforcing restrictions against partisan politicking by churches since at least 2009, despite blatant violations on a massive and organized level?
The electioneering prohibition is not limited to churches. No 501(c)(3) organization may politick or endorse political candidates. Nor should any 501(c)(3) be permitted to electioneer, which amounts to taxpayer subsidization of political speech. More than $100 billion is given annually in tax-free contributions to churches and religious groups. Imagine that kind of money flowing with no accountability to political candidates.
As many as 1,500 clergy reportedly violated the electioneering restrictions on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, as FFRF’s legal complaint noted when we filed our historic federal lawsuit to enforce the church electioneering ban last fall. A widely circulated Bloomberg news article last fall quoted an IRS official saying the IRS has suspended tax audits of churches.
IRS officials have admitted they’re not enforcing the law against partisan politicking by churches. But no political backlash has resulted. No consternation against the IRS’s selective application has been voiced by Congress or the president, as it has been in the recent tea party scandals, nor have any heads rolled.
In 2009, a federal court ruling required the IRS to indicate which high-ranking official could authorize audits over the tax code’s political rules. All FFRF is asking of the IRS is to name such an employee and demonstrate some evidence it’s enforcing its own policies.
The IRS, in seeking to dismiss FFRF’s federal challenge of its preferential treatment toward churches, is actually arguing for the right to have unfettered and unreviewable discretion in deciding how to enforce tax code restrictions.
According to the IRS, in statements filed in court on April 8, the IRS “is uniquely qualified to make decisions regarding the enforcement decisions that are most important to taxpayers and tax administration.” The IRS has stated: “Even if FFRF were correct that the IRS systematically refuses to enforce political activity restrictions against churches and religious organizations,” FFRF and other tax-exempt organizations should not be allowed to challenge the agency’s discriminatory actions.
What an admission!
The loudest offenders, pastors who have “turned themselves in” and bragged about endorsing candidates from the pulpit, are typically connected to the Christian Right. They have been openly organized, for instance, by the well-heeled Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund). Its Pulpit Initiative, typically organized before major elections, is known as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” ADF claims one of its main goals is to overturn prohibitions against church electioneering.
What ADF and rogue churches want to achieve would make Citizens United look like peanuts. Congregations could be turned into political machines. Tax-exempt donations could be funneled to politicians and campaigns with no accountability, no sunlight, no reporting, no limits. Politicians would be forced to openly pander in order to curry votes. Our democratic republic would be imperiled, and we would be at the mercy of a religious shadow government.
Restrictions for tax-exempt status must be neutrally applied to ALL tax-exempt organizations. Anything falling short of that is indeed preferential treatment.
FFRF currently has three separate lawsuits against the IRS in federal court: its challenge of the parish exemption, its challenge on non-enforcement of church electioneering and its lawsuit challenging the fact that churches, unlike all other 501(c)(3)s, need not file for tax exemption or file annual reports to the government to maintain tax-exempt status.