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Churches endorsing political candidates sparks debatecomment (0)

November 14, 2013

Congress established the 501(c)3 tax-exempt status applicable to churches, religious organizations and ministers “in recognition of their unique status in American society,” the International Revenue Service (IRS) claims in its Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations.

The designation benefits those that qualify in a number of ways. Public charities are exempt from paying federal corporate income tax and often from state and local corporate income taxes. That means houses of worship and church-related organizations save money. For churches, perhaps the most important benefit is the ability to solicit charitable donations — including offerings — that are tax deductible for the donor.

The IRS provision sets five primary requirements in place that entities must meet to qualify for the designation. Two of the five govern political activity: No “substantial” part of the organization’s activities may “involve attempts to influence legislation,” and the group cannot “intervene” in political campaigns.

The code says organizations that qualify as not-for-profits under 501(c)3 “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.” The code further prohibits any “public statements of position.”

The IRS interprets that portion of the code to mean speech could be restricted, even if a candidate isn’t “expressly” named, if the information is sufficient for readers or listeners to be able to identify the candidate. A communication can be construed as a violation if it “expresses approval or disapproval of one or more candidates’ positions or actions.”

That point caught the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in the 2012 presidential election cycle. Although Graham did not endorse anyone for president, he met with then-Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Media declared the evangelist “sort of” endorsed Romney through that meeting.

Later Graham authorized newspaper ads in which he urged people to vote for candidates who supported marriage as biblically defined, were pro-life and would defend religious freedom.

While he did not explicitly endorse Romney or any Republican candidates nor openly oppose Democratic ones, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sued the IRS for failure to investigate the political activities of churches and religious organizations, singling out Graham’s association.

The prohibition against political campaign intervention by tax-exempt nonprofits became part of the IRS tax code in 1954 when then-Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson introduced it during a floor debate.

Although some groups believe Johnson posited the tax code addition as a means to stop political challengers, no historical record of the senator’s reasoning exists.

Today a growing number of Christian legal activists, notably the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Liberty Council, are calling Johnson’s IRS amendment unconstitutional for four reasons.

First they believe the amendment violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because it requires the government to “excessively and pervasively monitor” speech that takes place in religious contexts. 

Second it violates the Free Speech Clause “because it requires the government to discriminate against speech based solely on the content of the speech.”

Third it further violates freedom of speech because a condition of receiving a tax exemption requires an organization to refrain from addressing certain topics.

Fourth the Johnson amendment violates the Free Exercise Clause because “it substantially burdens a church’s exercise of religion” but without a “compelling reason” to do so, the Alliance notes.

The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty supports the IRS restrictions citing the need to keep the “wall of separation” in place between religion and the state.

Others supporting the IRS restrictions point out that “pulpit politicking threatens to divide congregations and communities and replace the theological mission of the church with one focused on partisanship and division.”


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