Focus on the Family (FOF) founder James C. Dobson on Sept. 10 announced that his organization has been cleared by the Internal Revenue Service of allegations of unlawful partisan politicking and then launched into an attack on Americans United – even though AU wasn’t involved with the complaint that apparently sparked the investigation.
On his daily radio program, Dobson and FOF official Tom Minnery discussed a 95-page complaint that had been filed against FOF by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) in November of 2005. In its letter to the IRS, CREW alleged that Dobson’s personal endorsements of candidates violated federal tax law.
Americans United did not join the complaint, noting that the Internal Revenue Code allows pastors and other heads of 501(c)(3) non-profit groups to issue personal endorsements of candidates, as long as no organizational resources are used.
Nevertheless, Dobson insisted on linking Americans United to the situation. FOF’s news service, Family News in Focus, went so far as to report that the IRS investigation “was sparked by allegations from two groups that routinely bash conservatives: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, known as CREW, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They falsely accused Focus on the Family and Dr. Dobson, in his capacity as the head of Focus, of electioneering by endorsing candidates for public office.”
Contacted by Americans United, the FOF news service revised the story slightly. But on the air, Dobson and Minnery persisted in attacking Americans United. Minnery blasted AU for opposing a 2006 FOF scheme that Minnery insisted was designed only to “inform Christians about the importance of voting and be sure that non-partisan voter registration forms are present in churches.”
However, there was a lot more to FOF’s project than that. The group sought volunteers to serve as “county coordinators” and “church coordinators” who would prod evangelical ministers in eight states to talk politics from the pulpit and distribute “voter guides” that compare candidates on various issues. These guides are routinely stacked to favor Republicans.
At the time, AU questioned why the project was operating in only eight states. The group pointed out that the eight – Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Minnesota, Montana and Tennessee – shared something in common: They just happened to have Senate and/or gubernatorial races that were considered close at the time FOF announced the project and were key to the Republican Party’s goal of keeping control of the Senate and as many statehouses as possible. It looked as though Dobson’s project dovetailed with GOP strategy.
The project fell apart when Americans United blew the whistle and warned churches that participating could jeopardize their tax exemption.
During the broadcast, Dobson said that Americans United seeks “to keep pastors from saying anything from the pulpit for fear that they’ll lose their tax-exempt status.”
In fact, Americans United has stated repeatedly that pastors run afoul of the law only for endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit, holding candidate rallies or fund-raisers in houses of worship or donating church funds to a candidate. AU had made it clear that discussion of issues is broadly protected.
Finally, Minnery accused AU of taking action only when the pastors involved in partisan politics are “socially conservative.”
This is also false. AU has reported numerous churches and other religious organizations for endorsing both Republicans and Democrats over the years. The organization’s view is that all houses of worship must follow the law – no matter what their political persuasion might be. Since 1996, Americans United has reported 70 houses of worship and religious non-profits for inappropriate political intervention on behalf of candidates. The split between liberals and conservatives is roughly 50-50.
Despite FOF’s claims of being completely cleared by the IRS, Dobson refused to publicly release the letter he received from the tax agency. When a staffer from CREW asked FOF for a copy, she was told that it would not be released, saying it was the organization’s discretion not to do so.
CREW wonders if FOF still has something to hide.
“Yes, Focus on the Family is claiming a win,” the group observed on its blog. “But, no one from the group will share the letter that purports to vindicate them. The fact is that Focus on the Family representatives are even asking reporters not to share the document with us. Their ‘discretion’ is puzzling to say the least.”
In other news about FOF:
• Dobson’s group is laying off 32 people, about 3 percent of its workforce. KOAA-TV in Colorado Springs reported that most of the employees are in FOF’s call center. The station also reported that FOF staff members reported that “donations are not keeping up with inflation rates and they didn’t meet their projected budget.”