How Churches Have Brought the IRS to Its Knees

If God plays politics, then God should pay taxes.

Election 2012 has come and gone, and at least one thing has become clear: It’s time to start taxing the churches. The IRS might finally be becoming aware of that fact, too, as complaints about churches violating the infamous “no political endorsements” rule continue to flow in. Maybe it’s the growing non-believing population in the U.S., or maybe Americans are getting tired of the freeloading political proselytizing, but either way, something is shifting.

Not surprisingly, it’s the godless crowd leading the charge. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is currently suing the IRS for the non-enforcement of their own rules, specifically regarding the blind eye they turned to religious endorsements this past election. A semi-scathing indictment of the IRS’s actions as of late, the group’s official complaint says churches have been getting “preferential treatment” in the endorsement ban’s enforcement compared to non-religious nonprofits.

It’s all over the fact that IRS showed in Election 2012 that they’re willing to be ignored. To date, they’ve done nothing to the 1,600-some pastors who deliberately took part in violating the Johnson Amendment, the near-60-year-old ban on church-affiliated political endorsements, with last month’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Headed up by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group out of Arizona, the stunt essentially makes a mockery out of the IRS’s code enforcement. Most endorsements, unsurprisingly, go to Romney or Republicans generally, but that’s beside the point. Endorsement on either side is simply against the law.

Churches currently fall under section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue code, which states that those organizations cannot be part of any statement “in favor of or opposition to any candidate for public office.” In fact, they’re “absolutely prohibited,” which is legalese for “you damn well better not.”

The IRS however, hasn’t really enforced that strong-worded clause since a 2009 browbeating from a church in Missouri.

Since then, the religious set has become politically emboldened, at least in terms of endorsements. This year alone, Billy Graham’s evangelical Christian group took out blatant endorsement ads, and some bishops told parishioners that a “vote for the Democrats is a vote for hell.”

Erik Stanley of the ADF told the Washington Times that the FFRF’s lawsuit “borders on frivolous” and that it probably will go nowhere in court. There’s also very little chance that the FFRF will be able to prove they’ve been done damage by the IRS’s un-enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. But even if they could, as much as I hate to say it, he’s right about the lawsuit missing the mark.

Politics and religion cross over naturally in the culture wars—and surely it can’t be denied that our values and morality should be discussed from a religious perspective for the people who want to hear it. If people want to be guided politically by their religious leaders, then let them be. I just don’t think the rest of society should be the group paying to support the pulpit.

All I hear when pastors endorse Romney (or Obama, or Jill Stein, or whoever) is “charge us, we would like to contribute to the society that pays our way.” Let the ADF think they’re freedom fighters for the religious set; it’ll cost them eventually.

Churches first gained their tax-exempt status from an 1819 Supreme Court case that went with the Websterian “the power to tax is the power to destroy” rule-of-thumb. But as we all know, American politics has historically been a pay-to-play game for the majority of the electorate. Now, it’s time for the pious to pay up, too—because lord knows they’ve been playing for years.

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  • RhymesWithRight

    Do you accept the 1817 ruling of the Supreme Court in McCulloch v. Maryland, which declared that the power to tax is the power to destroy?

    Do you accept that the First Amendment exists to guarantee the right of both individual believers and religious organizations to teach and preach their faiths free from government interference?

    If so, how can you accept the claim that government may tax a church for preaching that which the government disfavors (or, for that matter, tax all churches)? That constitutes the government exercising the authority to destroy churches and other religious organizations, which runs contrary to the First Amendment.

    In other words, churches and religious organizations must be considered constitutionally exempt from taxation by virtue of the First Amendment.

    • Stephen Clamage

      Rhymes, I think you have completely missed the point. Tax exemption is a privilege, not a right. In exchange for meeting the requirements of a non-profit educational or public-service organization, you are excused from paying taxes. One of the requirements is that you don’t show support or opposition in political contests. This restriction applies not just to churches, but to all 501 (c) (3) organizations.
      Compare: in exchange for a license to use your vehicle on public roads, you must pay various taxes and fees.

      Any person or organization can express political viewpoints, but you do it on your own dime, not at a cost to all taxpayers. (When you get a tax exemption, the cost of supporting the government increases for those who pay taxes.)

      You don’t have to pay taxes and fees on your vehicle either, but then you don’t get to drive it on the public (tax-supported) roads.

      Other 501(c)(3) organizations have acted politically in the past, and the IRS jumped on them for back taxes. The IRS has for whatever reason continues to give some (but not all) churches a free pass to violate the rules. THAT is what the FFRF suit is about.

      • RhymesWithRight

        I think you’ve missed the point — churches and other religious organizations are constitutionally different from 501(c)(3) organizations due to the First Amendment. They are the only sort of organizations that the government is constitutionally barred from interfering with — and in light of McCulloch v. Maryland, which held that the power to tax is the power to destroy, it is impermissible to tax them because the government CANNOT CONSTITUTIONALLY DESTROY A CHURCH!

  • Mark Farris

    The churches are selling a bad product and should be fined for doing so and then taxed.