When the preacher’s pulpit turns into a political pulpit, plenty of people are listening – and ready to report what they hear to the Internal Revenue Service. In recent years, a number of churches and religious organizations have been referred to the IRS for violating the provisions of their federal tax-exempt status by allegedly trying to influence political campaigns and elections.
In 2009, a federal court ruled the IRS must specify which top officials could conduct audits into violations of political rules. Since then, officials have been quoted saying they haven’t pursued any investigations related to churches. Following the 2012 election, the IRS was called out for not investigating houses of worship that took an activist role and try to push their parishioners to vote for a particular candidate.
In the early 2000s, some members of Congress pushed to give houses of worship more leeway to express political views. A “Safe Harbor for Churches” measure, which would have allowed clergy to endorse political candidates without jeopardizing their institutions’ tax-exempt status, was introduced in the House but killed in 2004. The “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005,” was also proposed to amend the Internal Revenue Code to state that churches and other houses of worship would not lose their tax-exempt status because of the “content, preparation or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.” The bill died. Churches are still prohibited from campaigning “directly or indirectly,” according to the IRS.
While liberal and conservative religious groups are split in their support of government actions to change IRS rules regarding tax exemption, they have found themselves united in a desire to maintain the unique role religion has had in American politics. America has a long history of religious leaders acting as the conscience and moral compass of the nation. It’s how those beliefs are relayed that is at the heart of the tax exemption battle.
Why it matters
The 2014 midterm elections are approaching, and they could shift the balance of power in Washington. As a result, even though polls show Americans are divided about whether clergy should be involved in the political process, more religious leaders and religious groups may be tempted to or will let their views on various issues of the day be known. That will likely intensify IRS scrutiny.
Questions for reporters
- How are religious organizations and leaders in your community responding to IRS scrutiny?
- Where do they stand on federal legislation that would allow religious groups and leaders to engage in political activity without risking their tax-exempt status?
- Have there been any complaints about religious groups or leaders endorsing political candidates in your community?
- How do members of congregations feel about such political involvement?
- Where do local political leaders stand on the issue?
“Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations”
Read the Internal Revenue Service’s rules on tax exemption for religious groups.
“Political and Lobbying Activities”
Read the full IRS rules for charities on political and lobbying activity.
“Charities, Churches and Politics”
Read a briefing on the rules regarding charities, churches and politics.
More on tax exemptions
“Pre-Election Analysis: Politics in the Pulpit”
Read “Pre-Election Analysis: Politics in the Pulpit” from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“How would Jesus vote?”
Read an article from the First Amendment Center about churches challenging the IRS law.
“Evangelical Churches Targeted In ‘Below The Radar’ Electioneering Scheme”
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has this article on electioneering by houses of worship and the Religious Right.
Religious Tax Exemptions: Overview
Thought.co offers an articles on religious tax exemption.
PollingReport.com offers a collection of polls on Americans’ opinions on politics and religion.
“Politics & Elections”
Read poll data on religion and politics from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“Did tax-exempt groups mislead the IRS on political spending?”
Read a Jan. 17, 2013, editorial from the Washington Post about tax-exempt groups and campaigning.
“IRS not investigating church politicking”
Read a Nov. 5, 2012, article from the National Catholic Reporter about the IRS not investigating politicking from churches.
“Court Rules Against IRS in Church-Audit Case”
Read a Feb. 3, 2009, article from the Chronicle of Philanthropy about the court ruling against the IRS.
“Probe continues of 60 tax-exempt groups, IRS says”
Read a Nov. 10, 2005, Washington Times article on IRS investigations of 60 tax-exempt groups, including 20 churches.
Barry Lynn is executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C.
Nathan J. Diament
C. Welton Gaddy
The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of the Interfaith Alliance and author of numerous books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State. Gaddy serves as pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La. The alliance is based in Washington, D.C.
Richard Land is president of the nondenominational Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., and previously served for 25 years as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Steven Miller is acting commissioner of internal revenue for the IRS in Washington, D.C. Contact media relations.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr.
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C., sponsored the failed “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005” which would have amended the IRS code to state that churches and other houses of worship will not lose their tax-exempt status because of the “content, preparation or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.”
American Center for Law and Justice
The American Center for Law and Justice is a politically conservative, Christian-based legal organization in the United States. It is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and associated with Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Bill Aiken is director of public affairs for Soka Gakkai International-USA, an American Buddhist association based in Santa Monica, Calif., that opposed the “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005.”
Rabbi Daniel Lapin is a prominent Washington-based rabbi who supported the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005.
Focus on the Family
Focus on the Family is a conservative group that supports churches’ right to campaign. The founder of this organization is James C. Dobson who was also former chairman and president.
Brad Dacus is president of the Pacific Justice Institute of Sacramento, Calif. The institute is a religious liberty advocacy organization that has litigated on behalf of churches such as the Independent Baptist Church of Sacramento in land use cases.
William Mumma is president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Organization officials have said preachers should be free to say whatever they want without threatening their churches’ tax-exempt status.
Russell Moore is director of the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.
In the Northeast
Ram A. Cnaan
Ram A. Cnaan is a leading expert on faith-based social services and the chair of the doctoral program in social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He wrote the article “Defining Who Is a Volunteer: Conceptual and Empirical Considerations” for the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (1996). He is also director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research and co-author of The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare.
Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the founder, CEO and academic director for Child USA, a nonprofit think tank aimed at ending child abuse. Hamilton, who began her career as a lawyer, is an expert on child sex abuse statutes, as well as law and religion. She is author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty.
Ira C. Lupu
Ira “Chip” Lupu is F. Elwood and Eleanor Davis Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School and a church-state expert who writes frequently about the faith-based initiative. In a January 2009 Q-and-A with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Lupu said that the trend has been toward greater church-state partnerships.
J. Bryan Hehir
J. Bryan Hehir is the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is an expert on religion and American society.
Richard Pomp is a law professor at the University of Connecticut and a tax expert.
Rikki Abzug is a professor of management at Anisfield School of Business at Ramapo College in New Jersey.
Peter Frumkin is professor of social policy, faculty director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, and director of the nonprofit leadership program at University of Pennsylvania.He is the author of On Being Nonprofit: A Conceptual and Policy Primer (Harvard University Press, 2005).
In the South
Melissa Rogers is a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies for Brookings, where she specializes in the First Amendment’s religion clauses and religion and faith-related political issues. She previously served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Douglas Laycock is a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia and an authority on religious liberty. He is the author of several books and articles on law and religion and co-edited a collection of essays on same-sex marriage and religious freedom.
Frances Hill is a University of Miami law professor and an expert on the political rights of tax-exempt organizations. She has said tax-exempt organizations can be passionate about politics without losing their tax-exempt status.
David A. Brennen
David A. Brennen is the dean of University of Kentucky College of Law. He co-wrote the book The Tax Law of Charities and Other Exempt Organizations: Cases, Materials, Questions and Activities (West Group Publishing, 2003).
Robert Wineburg is the Jefferson Pilot Excellence Professor of social work at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro who has looked at IRS investigations of churches for political activities related to elections. He is the author of the Faith-Based Inefficiency: The Follies of Bush’s Initiatives, and he has been writing comprehensively about faith-based politics and social services since the Reagan era.
Natalie Davis is a political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. She is an expert on religion and taxes.
Vaughn E. James
Vaughn E. James is a law professor at Texas Tech University. He wrote the article “Reaping Where They Have Not Sowed: Have American Churches Failed to Satisfy the Requirements for the Religious Tax Exemptions?” for the Catholic Law Review (2004).
Neal Devins is a professor of law at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He is an expert on abortion law.
He has studied the case of Bob Jones University’s battle for tax-exempt status.
In the Midwest
Gina Torielli is director of the graduate tax program at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich. She is an expert on tax-exempt organizations.
John D. Colombo
John D. Colombo is a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign, Ill. He has proposed a theoretical and practical system for determining when nonprofit entities should receive tax exemptions.
Donald Tobin is associate dean for faculty at Ohio State University’s Michael E. Moritz College of Law. He is an expert on religious organizations and the federal tax exemption.
In the West
Ted G. Jelen
Ted G. Jelen is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has followed religion and politics, including the participation of the Catholic Church and the role abortion politics plays. He co-edited the books Abortion Politics in the United States: Studies in Public Opinion and The One, the Few and the Many: Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective. He also co-wrote the book Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion.
He wrote the entry “Tax Exempt Status of Religious Organizations” for the Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics (Facts on File, 2003).
Stephen Bainbridge is a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles. He has written about the Roman Catholic bishop in Colorado Springs who sent out a church letter saying Catholics should not receive communion if they voted for politicians who supported abortion rights.