God, Don’t Bless the IRS

How some churches disregard toothless tax laws

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Image by Flickr user: kenteegardin / Creative Commons

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American churches enjoy nonprofit, tax-exempt status with a few important conditions, and one of them is that they can’t endorse political candidates or otherwise get involved in political campaigns. But the Internal Revenue Service is failing to enforce this provision, reports The Humanist (Jan.-Feb. 2011), even as some pastors openly defy the law by holding annual “Pulpit Freedom” events in which they deliver explicitly political sermons.

The main force behind the Pulpit Freedom events is the Alliance Defense Fund, a right-wing lawyer group that, The Humanist reports, “has made no secret of the fact that it’s itching for a court fight—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.”

One of its main foes in the battle is Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan group that frequently files complaints with the IRS about brazen church politicking.

“If houses of worship were allowed to engage freely in partisan political activity,” The Humanist writes, “Americans United foresees the day when a large church or a group of churches working together could form a political machine that dominates a community’s political life.”

It’s not only right-leaning churches that skirt the law; progressive churches also push the boundaries. And churches aren’t the only nonprofits for which politicking is forbidden: Other tax-­exempt organizations are subject to the same rule. Both a liberal preacher and the NAACP have been investigated by the IRS for alleged violations in recent years.

“What did the IRS do in both cases? They blinked,” Notre Dame law professor Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer tells The Humanist. “They are afraid they could lose. The more they duck, the more people who are willing to be aggressive will ignore the law.”

Cover-165-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.