Michael Batts, who chaired a commission of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability that recommended Internal Revenue Service policy changes, speaks at the National Press Club on Jan. 29, 2015. Behind him is Ezra Reese, a member of the drafting committee of Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

Religious and secular advocates urge IRS to clarify rules on political endorsements from the pulpit

Michael Batts, who chaired a commission of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability that recommended Internal Revenue Service policy changes, speaks at the National Press Club on Jan. 29, 2015. Behind him is Ezra Reese, a member of the drafting committee of Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

Michael Batts, who chaired a commission of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability that recommended Internal Revenue Service policy changes, speaks at the National Press Club on Jan. 29, 2015. Behind him is Ezra Reese, a member of the drafting committee of Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Religious and secular advocacy groups jointly called Thursday (Jan. 29) for greater clarity by the Internal Revenue Service regarding nonprofits and political activity.

In a rare combined front, leaders of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Alliance Defending Freedom, Public Citizen and the Center for American Progress met at the National Press Club to discuss ways the tax agency could better help nonprofits know what they can and cannot do under the law.

“Something needs to change,” said Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. “We agree that clear and brighter lines must be adopted.”

In 2013, a commission appointed by the ECFA issued a 91-page report recommending that clergy should be able to say “whatever they believe is appropriate” from the pulpit without fear of IRS reprisal. Current IRS rules, dating to 1954, permit clergy to address issues but prohibit candidate endorsements.

But those rules are routinely broken with little or no consequence.

Michael Batts, who chaired the ECFA’s Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, said the IRS should hesitate to enforce some of its current rules, which could cause constitutional and public relations problems.

“The IRS itself needs an exit strategy, and churches and charities need freedom of speech and the freedom to exercise religion,” he said.

Erik Stanley, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, said IRS laws about “indirect” campaigning are too vague and the IRS is not enforcing its rules about direct campaigning. He said some 4,000 “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” pastors have self-reported to the IRS that they have talked about candidates, often supporting or opposing particular ones, during a worship service.

Erik Stanley, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, about the need for legislative fixes for Internal Revenue Service policy at the National Press Club on Jan. 29, 2015. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

Erik Stanley, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, about the need for legislative fixes for Internal Revenue Service policy at the National Press Club on Jan. 29, 2015. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“There’s been no prosecutions to date,” he said, saying legislative fixes are needed for IRS policy.

The IRS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2013, a Treasury Department inspector general determined that the IRS used “inappropriate criteria” when questioning some applications for tax-exempt status by Tea Party and other groups. Evangelist Franklin Graham, complained when the organizations he leads -- the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse -- were audited after the BGEA ran election-related ads.

Although all the groups at the Press Club event agreed on the need for more clarity from the IRS, they differ in the specifics of how its rules should be changed.

Ezra Reese, a member of the drafting committee of Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project, worried that some nonprofits might take advantage of rules supported by the ECFA to fund more issue-oriented ads.

“You will have a much larger amount of tax-deductible dollars influencing elections,” he said.

But differences aside, the lack of clarity is creating confusion for a range of nonprofits, said Alex DeMots, vice president and deputy general counsel for the Center for American Progress.

“It’s just bad public policy for a small charity or church or community organization to have to hire a lawyer to figure out what it can and can’t do,” he said.

YS/MG END BANKS

Comments

  1. The problem is having incipient tax assessments against corporations with no owners and often very limited revenue streams, assessment from which you ‘exempt’ them through demonstrations of good conduct on their part.

    An alternative would be to have corporations pay a fee in return for limited liability equal to a small stock-dividend issued to a government trust. The trustees would be expected to sell the stake within a decent interval, either on the equity markets or via online auction. Philanthropic entities, having no owners, would be exempt.

    An assessment on philanthropies for continued limited liability status would be tagged to the compensation of their officers. You could have figures for expected compensation for the chief executive, the most handsomely compensated 8 employees, and the most handsomely compensated 50, including therein the compensation of any first degree relations of such on the payroll. For small philanthropies, you could assess the chief executive and the most highly compensated 15% of the employees. You’d have a figure for expected compensation derived from compensation per worker in the larger economy and the number of FTE the philanthropy employs. As long as a philanthropy kept its compensation in line, they’d be exempt from any liability other than a 3-digit processing fee and everyone would be free of finicky controversies over what is and is not permissible conduct and shizzy discretionary decisions and bureaucratic gamesmanship by the Lois Lerners of this world.

  2. Why? Why is a ‘candidate endorsement’ some sort of bright line? And what is it you’re taxing, Mr. Doerr? Their corporate income? They do not have any other than some additions to their endowment (and the principal is commonly shrinking in real terms). Consumption? The revenue streams from church gift shops and yard sales are trivial and all sorts of exemptions from final sales taxes quite normal. Their property? Church property is highly illiquid and true assessed value in most circumstances would be for the raw land.

  3. The hundreds of thousands of churches in the US enjoy exemption from federal and state taxes — on the condition that they not endorse candidates. That’s the law. If they wish to become political operators they should be willing to give up their tax exemptions. The vast majorities of churches do adhere to the law.

  4. He says, reciting his talking points. C’mon buddy. You’ve been writing shizzy letters to the editor on these topics for 30 years. You can do better than that.

  5. I prefer church and state to be separate. Our freedom depends on it. I hate politicians telling me how pray or clergy telling me how to vote.

  6. Art, you cretin. You are just flinging poo because you don’t have anything worthwhile to say in response. Classy as always.

  7. I agree with you Huey. Our freedom does depend on separation of church and state, also on freedom of speech. As a minister, if I believe and an injustice is about to be done, or has been by government officials, elected or not I should speak out. Telling the congregation who to vote for in a church service or on a list handed out prior, during or after a service serves to discredit the whole meaning of church and worship.

  8. Times have changed even though the bible has not.

    Verse 2 Kings 12:15 talks about how honest the temple was and they were not even required to account for their workers pay. (Israel pays their Rabbis to conduct the law of Torah which is the first five chapters of the bible.)

    The bible talks about church and state separating and what happens. We don’t need prosecuting of churches, ruining of businesses or slandering of people. (Especially if something is already accepted as state law; however, nonprofits are federal law.) In the future, if the state laws change, it should reflect events after the date and not before the law change. Otherwise, all of the nation will be in uproar.

    Man has created all the extra laws that are not from the bible; however the United States was created from the words of the bible and some federal buildings were previously synogogues.

    Christians do know the truth to the words of Revelation 1:7. Christians need to stand up for our rights in this country.

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