A growing number of churches are thumbing their noses at federal law and diving into the political arena . . . putting their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status at risk.
According to the I.R.S.’s rules and regulations, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization (which includes churches) may not “influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” It’s simply part of the deal that in order to exist without paying taxes, certain types of political action are off-limits.
It’s rare, but the I.R.S. can revoke a group’s tax-exempt status if they violate the rules and did so for the first time in 1995. In the last few years, more and more churches, however, are crossing the line on purpose.
An Oklahoma church pastor is openly endorsing political candidates and proudly proclaims the I.R.S. is doing nothing to stop him. If they do, he vows to fight “all the way to the Supreme Court.”
In Iowa, a church is getting attention because its leader is openly trying to get rid of three of the state’s Supreme Court justices. “In fact, I hope the IRS tries to do something about it,” Rev. Cary Gordon, associate pastor with Cornerstone World Outreach said. “I think that the current IRS code is a violation of the First Amendment.”
Earlier this year, American United for Separation of Church and State (AU) asked the I.R.S. to investigate Dove World Outreach Center, the church which has since become famous for the threat to burn Korans last month. The church put up a sign that stated “No Homo Mayor” in reference to Craig Lowe, a gay candidate for mayor of Gainesville, Fla.
AU has also asked the I.R.S. to investigate a South Dakota church when a pastor there endorsed a candidate for governor. Rev. H. Wayne Williams, pastor of Liberty Baptist Tabernacle in Sioux City, S.D., reportedly endorsed Gordon Howie, a Republican who was looking for his party’s nomination for governor.
There are groups asking for the revocation of the tax-exempt status of the Mormon Church, based largely on their push to get a constitutional amendment passed in California banning same-sex marriage. One blogger pushing for the I.R.S. to step in, sympathetic to the church, wrote: “I have never harbored ill will toward the Church, but I am deeply troubled at how the Church’s efforts were likely the deciding factor in California’s recent vote to take away the right to marry from same-sex couples.”
And, of course, the extremely nutty Westboro Baptist Church has a Facebook page devoted to revoking their tax-exempt status.
It seems that many churches are openly violating the law and the I.R.S. is sitting around letting it happen. It is unclear why nothing is being done, but this can’t go on for long. The I.R.S. will have to do something at some point. Hopefully, they’ll charge a whole group of churches at the same time in order to show the serious nature of the problem.
If churches want to legally engage in politics they can easily do so. They just need to give up their tax-exempt status and pray for more money to make up the difference. If prayer works, as they assert, it shouldn’t be a problem.
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