Wednesday, January 9, 2013


Churches are granted privilege under tax law. Most significantly, due to their status as 501(c)(3), they are federally tax exempt. Also, all 50 states exclude them from the property tax rolls. Across all tax breaks, churches in America realize $71 billion in savings according to a study conducted by the Council for Secular Humanism and the University of Tampa. 

In order to maintain these breaks, the rules are pretty simple: keep your nose clean in the world of politics. Churches are allowed to involve themselves in matters of public policy without it being deemed lobbying -- and incurring the wrath of the IRS -- if their actions are kept within a certain set of parameters. They can conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, and pursue public policy in an entirely educational matter. What they can’t do is contact or urge the public to contact legislators in an effort to suggest, promote and oppose legislation or intervene in a political campaign and dictate to their followers who should be the winner or loser.

Most churches do a fantastic job of staying within the boundaries of the tax code while others tread a fine line between educating and lobbying. But, as we’ve seen in recent years, more and more churches are breaking the law with vigor and becoming fully involved in both policy and politics.

Take, for example, what happened on New Year’s Day when Chicago's Cardinal Francis George and his auxiliary bishops issued a letter to their churches urging them to oppose the gay marriage bill that is up for vote in the Illinois legislature. Catholic Churches throughout the Diocese of Chicago issued the letter as a supplement to their church bulletins or emailed a copy to their parishioners. 

Although brazen – and illegal – the Diocese’s actions are nowhere near as cocksure as the campaign called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. On one Sunday during the fall of every year since 2008, this movement has hit churches across the United States. What started as just 84 churches grew to 539 in 2011 to 1,586 in 2012 (a list of participants can be found at Participating churches protest the limitations imposed upon them by the federal government by openly preaching about candidates and elections and what Scripture says about those currently engaged in an electoral campaign. They say it’s their way of using God’s word – and their freedom of speech – to tell their flock whom they should vote for. Many of these pastors even record their sermon and send it to the IRS to antagonize and make their claim that federal laws cannot contain them.  

The IRS has attended to most religious lawbreaking with a hands-off approach. In 2004 it created the Political Activities Compliance Initiative (PACI) which investigated claims of political preaching by churches during the 2004, 2006, and 2008 election cycles. After busting 80 churches and slapping them on the wrists with nothing more than a stern warning, this enforcement endeavor faded into the sunset and saw no investigations or hearings during or following the 2010 elections; nor has the IRS investigated recent breaches, even those of the pastors who self-reported their participation in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

The IRS’s reasons for allowing non-compliances are two-fold. For starters, sudden enforcement can be perceived to show support for a political party (something the apolitical IRS is keenly afraid of). Secondly, even with declining attendance, Americans still care deeply about their places of worship and, because of that tax, enforcement would be suicide for certain politicians and bureaucrats.

Regardless, this fear of repercussions has to stop. The IRS needs to step up to the plate and make non-compliant churches become complaint, especially since the agency relishes penalizing individual citizens for far lighter transgressions.

Simply put, churches can’t have their cake and eat it, too. They can’t claim separation of church and state and then demand that their members engage the state in very specific ways. Nor can they claim an unabated freedom of speech and an ability to participate in affairs of policy while simultaneously  not wanting to make the sacrifices (taxes) that other organizations and individuals must to be afforded the that ability. If they act up, they should pay up --- after all, churches are organizations that pride themselves on living by the rules (the Ten Commandments, God’s laws, et al), so it only makes sense that they behave accordingly within the rules that grant them special favor.

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American at Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer

This column originally appeared in the 14 January 2013 Lockport Union Sun & Journal

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