Clergy, take note: in this election year, the Internal Revenue Service is trying to help you stay out of tax trouble.
Earlier this month, the federal agency announced that it will continue its campaign to educate churches and other tax-exempt charities about the rules governing political activity. It will also enforce the law through appropriate intervention and penalties.
Said Steven T. Miller, commissioner of the IRS' Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, "We take very seriously our obligation to ensure that tax-exempt organizations have the information they need to make the right decisions about political campaign activities. The vast majority of organizations want to do the right thing, and as in past years, we will continue our efforts to make sure they have the information they need."
In the IRS press release, the agency noted, "By law, organizations exempt from tax under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) may not 'participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.'"
The IRS said it is making extensive efforts to educate 501(c)(3) organizations, political parties and candidates through its Political Activities Compliance Initiative.
Letters are even being sent, the IRS said, to the national political party committees explaining the law's prohibition regarding charities and churches.
That's pretty funny. Telling politicians that churches can get into tax trouble for partisan politicking will do no good at all. Candidates want votes, and most will do anything they can to get them – including jeopardizing churches' tax-exempt status.
So here's the bottom line: if you are a religious leader, read the information on the IRS site about what's legal and what's not. You can also check information provided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. And you can consult objective legal authorities.
Do not listen to the Religious Right manipulators who are prowling the American landscape. Like many candidates, they are only interested in turning churches into a cog in their right-wing political machine. They won't get into trouble with the IRS, pastor, your house of worship will.
This advice is especially important when it comes to clergy endorsements and so-called "voter guides." The Religious Right persists in misleading clergy about these topics, so it's wise to learn as much as possible from the IRS or other reliable sources.
In conjunction with its April 17 press release, the IRS issued a new "program letter" that, among other things, gives additional guidance on voter guides and ministry Web sites. It's worth a read.