The Internal Revenue Service should make it clear that houses of worship and other tax-exempt, non-profit groups have no right to engage in partisan politicking, Americans United for Separation of Church and State told the tax agency today.
In a letter to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn urged the agency to act now, since the 2016 presidential campaign is getting under way.
“Too many houses of worship, religious colleges and other tax-exempt groups are flagrantly violating the law by endorsing or opposing candidates,” Lynn said. “The IRS has the power to stop this, and it’s time the agency used it.”
In his letter to Koskinen, Lynn noted that Americans don’t want to see non-profit groups turned into partisan political units.
“Many Americans are concerned over the abuse of tax-exempt status by organizations with partisan political intent,” wrote Lynn. “With our nation approaching a presidential election, the problem of pulpit politicking will only become more acute.”
Lynn noted that Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., allowed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to officially announce his presidential campaign at the school March 23. The university, which is tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, hosted what amounted to a campaign rally for Cruz; students were required to attend the event.
This partisan activity by Liberty University on Cruz’s behalf, Lynn said, deserves scrutiny by the IRS.
“Indeed, it appears that Sen. Cruz chose Liberty because it offered him certain advantages, and Liberty was more than happy to work in coordination with the senator to assist his cause,” observed Lynn in his letter to Koskinen. “Sen. Cruz wanted potential donors and conservative voters to believe that he has the support of thousands of young people at the largest Christian university in the world. And Liberty helped sell that idea by making attendance at the senator’s rally mandatory for students. (In fact, anyone who failed to show up without an approved excuse faced a fine of $10.)”
Lynn pointed out that Liberty isn’t the only organization thumbing its nose at federal law. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal group based in Arizona, has been openly prodding pastors to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit during an annual event it calls “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”
Federal law states that organizations holding tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) – a category that includes houses of worship, many colleges, charities and other entities – may not intervene in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
The IRS temporarily stopped enforcing the law after the flap over the alleged heightened scrutiny of “Tea Party” groups. In his letter, Lynn asserted that these allegations turned out to be largely baseless and said it’s time for the IRS to move on and begin enforcing the law.
Wrote Lynn, “I believe it would be detrimental for our country and the democratic process to go through another election cycle with the ‘no-politicking’ rule unenforced. The more the IRS delays, the more organizations like Liberty University and the churches that follow the advice of the Alliance Defending Freedom conclude that they do not have to abide by our nation’s laws.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.