Churches Tempt Tax-Status Scrutiny (to No Avail)

November 20th, 2012 · 2 Comments · tax policy, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

In the run-up to the presidential election, on Oct. 28 and Nov. 1, full-page ads ran in the Albuquerque Journal featuring a message from Billy Graham.

Both were adamant that readers should “vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms,” yet left it to the reader to fill in the blank as to the identity of said candidate(s).

Less than two weeks before the first ad ran, Graham and his son Franklin met with presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and  “The elder Graham stopped short of an endorsement, but told Romney that he would do ‘all I can to help you’,” according to the Huffington Post.

So, why didn’t the ads just come out and ask voters to choose Romney?

The answer lay in much smaller type at the bottom of each Journal ad.

At the bottom of the first was: “Paid Advertisement by Calvary Albuquerque,”

The second Journal ad was identical in its message and photo of Billy Graham, with an added headline: “VOTE Biblical Values Tuesday, November 6.” At the bottom was the “Paid Advertisement” explainer and contact information for Hoffmantown Church.

So, by staying off the record as far as naming a specific candidate, Graham could produce camera-ready ads the churches could place in their local papers – making clear the churches’ electoral choice without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

Apparently Graham – and the sponsoring churches – felt that withholding names would provide enough cover to evade IRS scrutiny.

And while the ad was broad enough to include candidates in all races, it’s clear in terms of the presidential race that Graham — and the sponsoring churches — favored Romney. Franklin Graham confirmed this when, in a post-election interview on ABC Family TV, he said “the secularization of America wasn’t going to stop” with the election of Romney, but at least it would have slowed.

The pre-election Huffington Post story also reported that:

Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, made headlines in February after questioning Obama’s Christianity and alluding to Obama possibly being a Muslim, and has been less discreet about his political support than his father. He wrote in a recent op-ed that Obama plans to rebuild America in what could amount to creating a “new nation without God or perhaps under many Gods.”

The Graham vote campaign was not limited to newspapers, as New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal noted in “Apocalypse Now,” informing readers of a YouTube collaboration between Billy Graham and Mike Huckabee. Like the newspaper ads, the film clip did not name a specific candidate.

A number of churches, however, not only tempted  but invited IRS scrutiny when they staged on Oct. 7 “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” in which a record 1,477 pastors endorsed candidates from the pulpit, according to Reuters.  That event was an extension of the Pulpit Initiative of 2008, which, according to Reuters, involved 33 pastors, and last year’s IRS challenge, which drew a reported 539. In these events, pastors taped their pulpit endorsements and mailed them to the IRS, hoping they would be challenged so as to have a day to challenge their speech restrictions in court.

The IRS has yet to take the bait.

Associated Press writer Rachel Zoll reported in “IRS Not Investigating Church Political Activity,” which ran under that headline in the Journal Nov. 4:

. . .attorneys who specialize in tax law for religious groups, as well as advocacy groups who monitor the cases, say they know of no IRS inquiries in the past three years into claims of partisanship by houses of worship. IRS church audits are confidential, but usually become public as the targeted religious groups fight to maintain their nonprofit status.

“The impression created is that no one is minding the store,” said Melissa Rogers, a legal scholar and director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina. “When there’s an impression the IRS is not enforcing the restriction — that seems to embolden some to cross the line.”

Zoll reported that one IRS manager, speaking at a seminar, said the IRS had suspended political audits because a 2009 federal court ruling required the IRS to clarify which high-ranking official could authorize audits over the tax code’s political rules, and that the IRS has yet to do so.

As Zoll put it:

The tax code allows a wide range of political activity by houses of worship, including speaking out on social issues and organizing congregants to vote. But churches cannot endorse a candidate or engage in partisan advocacy.

Yet, she pointed out that in one case a Texas pastor erected a sign saying, “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim.”  (A clear endorsement of Romney, while perpetuating a fear-based bias against the president.)

She also noted that a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found “40 percent of black Protestants who attend worship services regularly said their clergy have discussed a specific candidate in church — and the candidate in every instance was President Barack Obama.”

Locally, the two churches that took out the full-page ads in the Journal also happen to be among the state’s largest, with congregations that exceed in number the populations of most New Mexico towns. (Calvary reportedly has at least 14,000 members).

That’s a lot of tax-exempt money to protect. And, as we’ve reported before, it’s also a built-in voting bloc for a candidate to tap, either by joining a megachurch or being granted a chance to appear at a church event. The appearance of then-candidate Allen Weh at a Calvary service in 2010 caught the attention of the Journal (and ABQJournalWatch).

That appearance also elicited the most thoughtful piece I’ve read yet on church endorsements. On his now-archived site, Heath Haussamen wrote then that “Pastors Shouldn’t Endorse Political Candidates,” not because it’s inappropriate in terms of tax law – and therefore, inappropriate in terms of a church’s integrity. But as Haussamen put it:

Pastors can use their influence as a healing force – to find common ground, foster a culture of treating all people as human beings, and promote a spirit of love and understanding. Such churches help heal society’s ills. . . .

Pastors can also use their influence to spread the disease of division by engaging in partisan politics. . . . Churches that engage in partisan politics alienate the other half of the country. In 2008, I actually heard one of those high-profile, McCain-supporting speakers use the word “enemy” to describe people who work in Hollywood.

People aren’t our enemies. War, disease, poverty… those are some of our enemies.

By not endorsing candidates, Haussamen wrote, pastors show that the church “is a safe place to grow in their faith.” In the article, he demonstrated how his own church in Las Cruces has done just that.

Haussamen is on to something.

Postscript: One can interject that Graham and the others were merely trying to get what Graham called “profound moral issues” into the election. To that it could be argued that by not naming a candidate, and focusing on just three issues – marriage, abortion and “religious freedom”—they can then get away with ignoring other Christian values. It could also be argued that they ignore evangelical history – the late 1960s and early 1970s, when, as Jonathan Dudley posits, (non-Catholic) evangelical Christians “widely believed the Bible says life begins at birth and supported looser abortion policies.”

While church leaders would do well to remember that mixing politics and religion is risky with regard to tax law, they might also remember that the Constitution specifies that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” As Peter Montgomery writes in his “12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics:”

That declaration represents the clearest statement of the intentions of the Constitution’s authors to prevent the government from engaging in religious coercion and to ensure that all Americans are welcome to engage in politics whether or not they share the religious beliefs of the majority.

Therefore, Rule No. 1 in Montgomery’s list of 12 is “no religious test for public office, nor a religious test for participation in the political process.” The 11 other rules and their explanations, with an introduction by Bill Moyers, are well worth a read.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Roland

    I find it totally mind boggling that Obama and his family, who are professedly members of the Church of Christ, have become targets of religious bigotry by right-wing Christian groups like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The CEO wrote that Obama plans to rebuild America as a “new nation without God or perhaps under many Gods.” Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson were explicitly Enlightenment deist in their beliefs and took pains to prevent the exclusion of other non-Christian religions. Romney’s LDS faith explicitly holds that there are many god-like beings in charge of planets throughout the universe. The bottom line here is that there no consistency behind the right-wing bigotry other than anti-Black racism and Islamophobia.

  • Cheryl Everett

    I suspect that the President (or whoever sets policy for the IRS) doesn’t want to alienate otherwise reasonable-minded Christians by going after “the churches” for any reason, especially the Black churches who already had some reservations about Obama’s support for gay rights.

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