Does The IRS Really Take Political Activity By Churches As ‘Seriously’ As It Claims?

It seems in recent years that whenever churches break the federal law prohibiting houses of worship and other 501(c)(3) non-profits from endorsing or opposing candidates, the Internal Revenue Service treats those violations with a shrug. And with all the talk this election season about repealing that anti-politicking law, Americans United felt it necessary to ask the IRS what it plans to do going forward to enforce a law that is good for both democracy and faith.    

Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn wrote to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen this summer. In that letter, Lynn expressed his concerns about the IRS’s perceived inaction when it comes to entanglements of religion and politics. Lynn also asked for a meeting with Koskinen to discuss this important issue.

“As both a Christian minister and a defender of the First Amendment, I find it deeply troubling to see numerous churches dive headfirst into partisan political activity, including clear instances of endorsement and opposition to candidates, every time there is a major election,” wrote Lynn. “Without action by the IRS, this problem will only grow.”

The IRS hasn't done a good job of policing houses of worship that engage in political activity.

Recently, Americans United received a reply to its letter. While we appreciate that an IRS official took the time to write back to us, the response itself was disappointing to say the least.

Victoria A. Judson, associate chief counsel for the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, insisted in her letter to Americans United that the IRS takes enforcement of the rule barring church political endorsements “very seriously.”

That would be encouraging were it not for the facts that Judson listed to support her assertion. She noted that the Department of the Treasury 2016-2017 Priority Guidance Plan includes finalizing revised procedures governing church audits. This means it is considered one of the agency’s important to-do list items.

It would be great if that were a new addition to the list. It is not. In reality, revising these procedures has been a “priority” for the IRS since 2010, when it first appeared on a Priority Guidance Plan. But this has actually been an issue since late 2008 when the IRS lost a court case in which a church that allegedly endorsed a candidate successfully sued the agency on the grounds that the wrong Treasury Department official had been signing off for years on audits of houses of worship. The IRS has yet to finalize its revised procedures for these audits.

Unfortunately, Koskinen also declined to meet with Lynn to discuss his concerns.

This issue nonetheless remains very important to Americans United. Since 1996, AU’s Project Fair Play has reported 125 churches and ministries to the IRS for their unlawful political activity. We will continue to be on the lookout for religious groups that violate the law.

We also just completed a Week of Action designed to educate clergy and laypeople about the dangers of pulpit politicking, and a few weeks ago, we mailed letters to 100,000 houses of worship reminding pastors that they need to remain officially non-partisan.

It is evident, however, that the IRS will not aggressively enforce the no-politicking rule without more public pressure. That means you can help ensure that the IRS keeps churches from turning into miniature political action committees, something most Americans simply do not want. If you agree with us, please sign this petition.