Church IRS Violations

My a-theist friends, as well as some Christian friends, are very concerned about November 6 and the activities of the fundamental, evangelical and New Apocalyptic churches that seem to think they are above the law.

For years I have worked with nonprofits, sitting on boards of directors, providing management consulting and training, and have managed communication departments. I know the IRS 501(c)(3) laws. There are a few basics exceptions made for religious organizations in the IRS codes, but not many and though it has been a few years since conducting 501 training, they remain the same. Especially when it comes to campaigning and elections.

Nonprofits, secular and sectarian, enjoy major tax breaks for themselves and those who donate money. There are extensions and covers that allow these organizations to expand beyond their walls as long as the profits from the organization go to civic means; education, housing, meals for those who need and alike. For the donors, there are tax deductions.

One thing a nonprofit may do is campaign for an issue on the ballot. Taxes for education and housing, gay and abortion rights, etcetera, are fair game and many non-profits take full advantage. What a non-profit, secular or sectarian cannot do is campaign for a candidate. Period – End of statement.

It is this rule that some Christian organizations are attempting to skirt, purposely violate or want to change, or all three.

From the IRS’s web site:

… all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

This would include both a Christian church and Planned Parenthood facility from putting up “Vote for” or “Vote against” signs. This would include, in my opinion, signs stating to vote for or against same-sex marriage or abortion.

However, we know that many Churches want a special exemptions so they can lobby and campaign for a candidate.

On October 16, Time Magazine’s online issue ran a story titled “Pulpit Freedom: Should Churches Endorse Political Candidates?” author Adam Cohen wrote:

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” organized by a group called Alliance Defending Freedom…  [is] trying to bait the IRS into coming after them so they can mount a legal challenge to the politics ban. So far, no luck, though they show no signs of quitting.

By flaunting the law, ministers who are bound to uphold sectarian and secular laws, openly defy the government and the teachings of Jesus, who told who were protesting taxes are to be paid.

Mark 12 : 13Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement. 14They came and said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? 15“Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.” 16They brought one. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they said to Him, “Caesar’s.” 17And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him.

Our secular law tells nonprofits that if they wish to maintain certain tax benefits, here are the rules. If they do not wish to follow the rules, pay the taxes.

My fear is that theocratic-bent religious-right is forcing a head to head battle with the IRS and the power of our government to govern. They appear to be heading to a battle field where they believe Christians have some birthright that has been denied and, therefore, need to be treated differently under different rules.

A-theistic, Jewish, Muslim and other non-Christian communities must demand that there should be no special preference given to any class of non-profit, that churches should not and cannot be considered “special” because they say they are.

Churches are made up of women and men, and unless God himself (or herself or itself) makes the argument in a court of law, these religious organizations will remain on the same playing field as the American Red Cross or Good Will Industries.

Groups as the National Atheist Party, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and others see such special permission as a direct violation of the First Amendment which prohibits government from becoming involved or sponsoring a religion (not from or for). Conversely, churches are restricted from becoming involved in the American political system by not endorsing candidates.

Is the fear, as Cohen suggests, is that the courts will have to take a position on this restriction? That our conservative members of the Supreme Court will have to side one way or another based solely on constitutional law and not on individual faith?

My answer is yes, for thee only logical view of this issue has been one that has been maintained since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that religion is an individual choice, not one of the government.

In their 2012 survey on American religiosity, Pew Research indicated that,

“ne out of five U.S. adults do not identify with a specific religion, and the number of Protestants has for the first time dipped significantly below 50 percent  …the growing ranks of those with no religious affiliation suggests that Americans slowly may be becoming less religious.

Those declaring themselves atheists, agnostics or of no religious beliefs has grown 33-percent, with no end in sight. 46,ooo,ooo voting age Americans would be negatively affected if the IRS or the courts change the rules concerning religion and candidate campaigning. Of the 175 million Protestants, almost 75-percent will be forced to act differently than their liberal beliefs allow.

Instead of granting new exceptions because of a group’s mythologies, Americans need to double down when we see an obvious or questionable violation of the prohibitions cited in IRS Code 501(c)(3). Not just the a-theistic 20-percent, but all Americans who seek fairness under the law.

About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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