It’s always hard to tell what’s going on at the Internal Revenue Service. The tax agency isn’t exactly a font of information, and what it does release tends to be shrouded in bureaucratese.
But sometimes you can cut through the fog and learn some interesting things. For example, it appears that the IRS is becoming a little more aggressive on the issue of partisan politicking by tax-exempt, 501 (c)(3) organizations.
Groups that hold this status – Americans United is one of them – may not engage in partisan politicking by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. We’re allowed to address issues, but we can’t tell people which candidates they should vote for or against.
Houses of worship hold this status as well. The vast majority of them follow the rules. The problem is, some pastors have decided they are above the law. They are violating this standard openly and flagrantly. Pastors even boast about it in the media – and it doesn’t appear that the IRS is doing anything about it.
Will that change? There are small signs that it might.
Recently, a group called the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty in Virginia was stripped of its tax-exempt status after the IRS determined that the organization had intervened in elections in 2004 and 2008. Specifically, the group attacked the candidacies of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. (In Clinton’s case, the organization vowed to “stop” her candidacy.)
The Henry Center is not a church, to be sure. It’s a standard-issue nest of right-wing extremists that got its start spreading nutty conspiracy theories about President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. (Fun fact: In 2010, the Center merged with an equally over-the-cliff group called Liberty Central. That organization is run by Virginia Thomas, the wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.)
Still, the fact that the IRS moved against the Henry Center is cause for some hope. The Center holds the same tax status as a church. To allow a right-wing church to do the same things the Center was doing and retain its tax-exempt status would be untenable.
That doesn’t mean the IRS is going to start cracking down on partisan churches tomorrow. An additional stumbling block remains: Before the IRS can investigate a church for politicking, it must conduct an audit. A federal court ruled in 2008 that such audits must be approved by a “high ranking” IRS official. Six years have passed, and the IRS still hasn’t said which of its officials qualifies as “high ranking.” However, in a recent letter to Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, an IRS attorney did say that sorting this out is part of the agency’s “2013-2014 Priority Guidance Plan.”
The IRS is also willing to move against religious groups for other violations of the tax code. The agency recently pulled the tax-exempt status of two religious non-profits after determining that the groups were not operating for bona fide charitable purposes.
One group used more than 80 percent of its revenue for rent, insurance and utilities on a run-down warehouse. The other group was supposedly formed to help struggling synagogues but was mainly engaged in for-profit activities, such as organizing tours of the Middle East.
Incidents like this show that the IRS is capable of acting – albeit often at a glacial pace. If the tax agency can crack down on these abuses, it can also curb rampant pulpit-based politicking.
All that’s required is the will.