Church Electioneering and the IRS: Another Example of Tax Agency Failure

You might have noticed that there has been a little controversy about the Internal Revenue Service lately.

It appears that officials in a Cincinnati IRS office subjected some conservative organizations that were seeking a form of tax exemption to heightened scrutiny and additional procedures because they had words like "Tea Party" and "patriot" in their names.

Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS's tax-exempt division, has conceded this was wrong. I agree. It's also frustrating.

Here's why: For some years now, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been urging the IRS to crack down on tax-exempt religious organizations that engage in blatant partisan electioneering. These are clear violations of the law, and yet the IRS seems to have done nothing to penalize scofflaws.

When I say clear violations of the law, I mean clear. I'm talking about religious organizations using their tax-exempt personnel and resources to intervene in elections. I'm talking about pastors standing up and telling their congregants which candidates to vote for or against, endorsing candidates in church bulletins or taking other actions that step way over the line.

These activities are not permitted. No tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) organization -- religious or non-religious -- can engage in behaviors designed to intervene in an election by endorsing or opposing a candidate. This is so because one of the conditions of tax exemption (which is very lucrative benefit) is that the groups holding it must refrain from this type of overt partisan politicking.

But some houses of worship do it anyway. They openly violate the law and even brag about it. One Religious Right outfit, the Alliance Defending Freedom, even sets aside a Sunday each year to encourage political chicanery.

This is not a secret. Americans United has been pressing the IRS to put a stop to this for years. The agency continues to drag its feet.

In 2012, we reported a church in Leakey,Texas, that put a sign on its marquee reading, "VOTE FOR THE MORMON, NOT THE MUSLIM! THE CAPITALIST, NOT THE COMMUNIST!" (Real subtle, huh?) In Maiden, N.C., a Baptist pastor gave a sermon during which he recommended quarantining all gay people and leaving them to die out and concluded by telling congregants not to vote for Barack Obama. (He said, "I ain't gonna vote for a baby killer and a homosexual lover. You said, 'Did you mean to say that?' You better believe I did.")

That's just two examples. There were many others. And we don't confine ourselves to churches that endorse Republicans. Over the years, AU has reported houses of worship for endorsing or opposing Democrats and third-party candidates, too.

The evidence in these cases is strong. As I said, some pastors even taunt the IRS by openly breaking the law and boasting about it. The IRS talks a good game about enforcing the law but does not act. Why?

Part of the problem may be due to foot-dragging at the IRS over some internal procedures. In 2006, Americans United reported the Living Word Christian Center in Minnesota after its pastor endorsed U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) from the pulpit. The IRS tried to audit the church, but the church sued, claiming that the audit had not been approved by a high-ranking IRS official, as federal law requires.

The church won the case in court. The IRS subsequently announced that it would develop new rules for what constitutes a high-ranking official. That was in 2009. The IRS has subsequently done nothing. Yet this would not seem to a big deal. It's a fundamental regulatory alteration simple enough to be crafted by a few monkeys with typewriters, at random, by just letting them work in a closed room for a week. A procedural matter that could be resolved in an afternoon has been pending for four years.

This is not rocket science. As Americans United told the IRS in November of 2009, "Given the pervasiveness of church politicking violations, as well as efforts by some organizations in recent years to encourage houses of worship to blatantly violate federal law, having a clear and valid enforcement regime is absolutely essential for the ongoing protection of religious liberty."

If the IRS wants to be more aggressive and crack down on law-breakers, it need not spend time subjecting Tea Party groups to extra scrutiny because someone decides their names raise red flags or an official frets that they might possibly step over some political lines.

That's all theoretical. Meanwhile, there are houses of worship breaking the law right now by endorsing or opposing candidates. That's not theoretical. They are doing it. And they're doing it openly.

It appears that officials at the IRS can't get motivated to work resolving an actual problem and are instead spending time embroiling themselves in embarrassing scandals. Perhaps it's time to bring in some people who not only understand the law but are willing to enforce it.