Black Churches investigated by IRS regarding political endorsements! Tax-Exempt organizations are prohibited by law to engage in political activity!
Released on = April 17, 2007, 4:43 pm
Press Release Author = HBCUEntrepreneurs.com
Industry = Government
Press Release Summary = Black Churches investigated by IRS regarding political endorsements! Tax-Exempt organizations are prohibited by law to engage in political activity!
Press Release Body = http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2006/04/29/irs_scrutinizing_charities_political_work/ IRS scrutinizing charities\' political work By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff | April 29, 2006 WASHINGTON -- An increasing number of churches and other charities are violating laws prohibiting involvement in political campaigns, prompting increased enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service and calls for a further crackdown.
An IRS review completed in February looked at 82 complaints about charities and found that three-quarters of the groups, nearly half of them churches, had violated laws against political activities. Mark Everson, the IRS commissioner, said in an interview with the Globe that despite the laws, charities receive less scrutiny than political committees, and are becoming increasingly attractive to those who want to use them for political activity. \'\'I\'m very concerned about continued inappropriate activity this [election] cycle,\" Everson said. \'\'Every indication I get is that this will be a problem and probably more of a problem. . . . My worry is that clever attorneys are seeing that this is a much less regulated area and they are willfully skewering some activities into the nonprofits and to some degree the churches as well.\" While the IRS has increased the number of agents who investigate charity abuse, some critics say the IRS is barely scratching the surface of the problem. For example, the IRS has no systematic method of auditing churches, which are not required to file tax returns and are rarely audited unless a complaint is lodged against them.
In its recent study, the IRS found that churches were violating the law by either urging people to vote for a particular candidate, endorsing a candidate, or donating money to a candidate. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the Republican Party requested that it be sent church membership directories, with a GOP official writing that \'\'access to these directories is critical\" to identifying those \'\'likely to be supportive of President Bush\'s compassionate conservative agenda.\" Republicans acknowledged receiving many copies of church directories, though they were sometimes sent by church members, not the church leadership. The IRS has not said whether it has taken any action regarding the use of church-membership lists in campaigns. Some analysts have attributed Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry\'s pivotal loss in Ohio to an effort by churches to urge their members to vote for a measure banning same-sex marriage, which drew more voters to the polls who favored the president.
The IRS policy on charities says: \'\'Charities may not engage in political campaign activities.\" The policy added that charities \'\'cannot endorse any candidates, make donations to their campaigns, engage in fund-raising, distribute statements, or become involved in any other activities that may be beneficial or detrimental to any candidate. Even activities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria violate the political campaign prohibition.\" But the IRS has said charities are allowed to distribute unbiased voters guides, and to express opinions on issues. Everson said he has assigned agents to look into all complaints about churches or charities engaging in political activity. He acknowledged that there had not been \'\'nearly enough focus on misconduct by charities in general, let alone looking at the political intervention.\" But now that the IRS is cracking down, some observers say enforcement is politically motivated. Marcus Owens, the former head of tax-exempt division of the IRS, said he believes the agency is cracking down on groups that help Democrats, and he questioned whether it is also going after those that benefit Republicans. Owens represents two organizations that have acknowledged being audited by the IRS for political activity: the NAACP and a California church. The NAACP said the IRS is investigating the civil rights organization because its chairman, Julian Bond, condemned the president\'s policies on Iraq, education, and the economy. Bond has maintained that he did not violate the prohibition on political activity, saying in a statement that \'\'We\'ve criticized, condemned and/or praised every president since Theodore Roosevelt and we\'ll continue to speak truth to power.\" Similarly, the All Saints Episcopal Church of Pasadena, Calif., has said it is being audited because its former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, gave a sermon in October 2004 titled \'\'If Jesus debated Senator Kerry and President Bush.\" Regas said during that sermon, \'\'Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine.\" The IRS sent a letter to the church that announced an investigation on grounds that \'\'a reasonable belief exists that you may not be tax-exempt as a church\" because of political statements. The letter was first reported by the Los Angeles Times. The IRS declined to comment on both cases, which are pending. Owens questioned whether the IRS is being as aggressive in going after churches or other charities that helped Bush. \'\'Certainly the Republican Party was very aggressive in using charities to marshal voters in the last election,\" Owens said.
Everson responded that an investigation by the inspector general at the Treasury Department concluded last year that the IRS\'s audits were not politically motivated. Individual investigations are shrouded in secrecy. Citing privacy rules, the IRS has declined to provide the names of charities that were accused of violating the political prohibition.
Many cases were resolved in negotiation with the IRS, without either side divulging any penalties. Only in the rarest cases did the IRS announce that it had revoked a group\'s charitable status -- and then refused to say if it was for political activity.
Sometimes, however, complaints come out in the media. At least one investigation took place in Boston, after reports that Rev. Gregory Groover of Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church introduced Kerry from the pulpit as the \'\'next president of the United States.\" A church lawyer said the complaint was dismissed after the Roxbury church told the IRS that the introduction wasn\'t intended as an endorsement. The lawyer, Frederick E. Dashiell, said it was \'\'a bit intimidating\" to be investigated for what he called \'\'an inadvertent statement.\" The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed some of the complaints, said church political activity has grown significantly. During the 1990s, he said, religious political activitism was centered on the Christian Coalition, which has since run into financial difficulties. Large local churches and their activist pastors have taken up the slack.
A group of religious leaders recently announced that they were filing a complaint about two Ohio churches that they say are improperly engaging in political activity on behalf of Republicans. The complaint has received national attention because it targets some of the church leaders who have been credited with boosting voter turnout for Bush in 2004.
The complaint said the church leaders have turned their attention to helping a Republican candidate for governor. The complaint notes that if a church invites a candidate to meet with the congregation, the IRS requires that all candidates be invited. The complaint said a charity tied to the Fairfield Christian Church of Ohio did not invite a Democratic candidate for governor to an event because he opposed a ban on same-sex marriage. By contrast, the charity has repeatedly hosted a Republican candidate, Kenneth Blackwell, who supports the ban on same-sex marriage.
The Rev. Eric Williams of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, a Democrat who filed the complaint, said Fairfield is \'\'acting as a campaign organization.\" But Russell Johnson, the Republican pastor of Fairfield Christian Church and the chairman of an affiliated charity called the Ohio Restoration Project, said he gave Blackwell an award for courageous leadership. \'\'If we were having a meet-the-candidate forum, we by law would have to invite everybody there,\" Johnson said.
The Democratic candidate who was not included, Representative Ted Strickland, said in a telephone interview that Johnson must be \'\'fully aware that what he is doing is intentionally designed to promote the political ambitions of Ken Blackwell.\"
Johnson said that he is being targeted by \'\'the religious left,\" which he said is trying \'\'to intimidate conservative believers.\" He said the work done by \'\'patriot pastors\" such as himself focused attention on the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion and in the process \'\'undoubtedly helped to elect the president.\"
He said his current mission is to register 300,000 voters. He said he is staying within IRS guidelines by not endorsing a candidate from the pulpit. Johnson\'s defense indicates how difficult it can be for IRS officials to pursue an investigation. \'\'The churches are particularly sensitive and we tread very carefully there,\" Everson said. \'\'No one here is talking about trying to limit either free speech or religious liberty. But the Supreme Court has held that just because you have religious liberty and free speech, you don\'t have an automatic or constitutional right to a tax exemption, and that\'s where the line has been drawn.\"