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Congressional Democrats are calling on the IRS to investigate why it allows groups like the Family Research Council, a Christian hate-group that is most certainly not a church, to reclassify themselves as “churches,” presumably to avoid transparency. In FRC’s case, it’s technically an “association of churches,” but the distinction is meaningless in the eyes of the law.

The move occurred in 2020 and was exposed last month in a piece by ProPublica’s Andrea Suozzo. To make sense of what’s going on, you need to know that all non-profit groups are granted a tax-exempt status by the U.S. government. That incentivizes people to donate to them for the (theoretical) betterment of society. But there’s a simple catch: The groups have to file a Form 990 report with the IRS explaining (among other things) how much money they took in, how it was spent, and how much their top staffers made in salaries. The 990s are public documents that allow the public to keep tabs on whether non-profits are really living up to their stated missions.

Importantly, that rule does not apply to churches, even though they’re also technically non-profits. They don’t have to fill out the 990s. They don’t have to make those details public. That means we don’t always know how much money big-name megachurch pastors make—or how much of the congregation’s money goes right into their pocket. We don’t know who the biggest donors are to those churches or if the money goes where the churches claim it goes.

That’s why there’s been a move lately for Christian non-profits—usually the kind that promote anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-women beliefs—to declare themselves churches, at least as far as the IRS is concerned. It’s not that hard to do! The IRS has a list of characteristics that define what a church is… but they’re just guidelines. If a group can check off most of those items, even in ways that make no sense at all, it can be classified as a church.

That list includes things like having an established place of worship, regular religious services, ordained ministers, etc. But, as John Oliver famously explained on Last Week Tonight in 2015, it’s extremely easy to fall within those guidelines depending on how you define everything.

In 2018, we learned that two Christian groups that ARE NOT CHURCHES, Focus on the Family and Liberty Counsel, had designated themselves as churches anyway. How did they do it? Simple. They lied. Or at least stretched the truth beyond any conceivable reality.

Focus on the Family said its employees were “ministers,” and its members were the “congregation,” and its cafeteria was a “place of worship,” and its board of directors were the “elders,” and its president was the “head deacon,” and its radio shows were just an “extension of its congregation.” The IRS bought it. They approved the change in 2016 and details leaked to the public two years later. (While Focus has still released its tax forms on its website, Liberty Counsel has been a lot more secretive.)

They’re not alone. The watchdog website MinistryWatch has said this is a growing trend:

Among the fifty largest Christian ministries in the country who have made this election [to designate themselves as “churches”] include: CRU/Campus Crusade for Christ, The Navigators, Gideons International, Willow Creek Association, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Joyce Meyer Ministries, and Ethnos360/New Tribes Mission. In addition, many megachurches and their related radio and television ministries. These organizations and individuals include: Joel Osteen, David Jeremiah, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland.

Some of those leaders defended the decision by saying the change allows them to avoid “government interference” with their work… even though the government isn’t getting in the way of their work. It’s not like the government tells churches what to do or how to spend their money. These church leaders just don’t want people knowing about their finances.

In the case of Family Research Council, they said they fulfilled 11 of the 14 guidelines to be a church by relying on their 40,000 “partner churches” to carry the load. In other words, a Christian non-profit group that works with churches… was using that partnership to declare itself an association of churches. As if it’s an umbrella group overseeing churches rather than a stand-alone organization that works with churches.

Very shady. Very unethical. Very right-wing Christian.

It’s exactly what you’d expect from conservative religious groups that don’t give a damn about honesty.

And that’s why Democrats in Congress now want the IRS to take a closer look into the fake churches. 40 House Democrats, led by Reps. Suzan DelBene (WA) and Jared Huffman (CA), have sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig urging them to review their own rules about which groups can be declared churches—and then enforce them.

FRC claiming to be a church strains credulity: they do not hold religious services, do not have a congregation or affiliated congregations, and do not possess many of the other attributes of churches listed by the IRS. FRC is one example of an alarming pattern in the last decade—right-wing advocacy groups self-identifying as “churches” and applying for and receiving church status.

We understand the importance of religious institutions to their congregants and believe that religious freedom is a cherished American value and constitutional right. We also believe that our tax code must be applied fairly and judiciously. Tax-exempt organizations should not be exploiting tax laws applicable to churches to avoid public accountability and the IRS’s examination of their activities.

Given that the FRC is primarily an advocacy organization and not a church, we urge the IRS to swiftly review the tax-exempt status, and whether there are other political advocacy organizations that have obtained church status, but do not satisfy the IRS requirements for churches, integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches. Further, we urge the IRS to improve the review process for organizations seeking church status to ensure that organizations that are not churches cannot abuse the tax code. Finally, we request the IRS determine whether existing guidance is sufficient to prevent abuse and what resources or Congressional actions are needed to ensure adequate implementation and enforcement moving forward.

It’s all extremely sensible.

Which is why I have no doubt groups like FRC will treat this letter as a form of Christian persecution. Because when you’re used to Christian privilege, neutrality is seen as oppression.

By the way, just as I wrote the previous sentence, FRC chimed in right on cue, saying this was all an attempt to silence them:

“This is nothing new for Democrats,” FRC Co-Founder and President Tony Perkins told Fox News Digital in an interview. “They want to silence all religious organizations. They really ought to get their facts straight because the facts that are advanced in this letter are inaccurate.”

We’re not a church,” he continued. “We’re what is recognized as an ‘association of churches’ because we work with churches. We’ve got about somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 active churches that we work with; we have a number of ordained members of our staff. So, we work with churches.”

Perkins added that Democrats are trying to use “any lever they can to silence Christians.”

Perkins is playing semantics instead of addressing the substance. As ProPublica reported weeks ago, FRC has indeed reclassified as an “association of churches,” not a church itself, but the distinction is meaningless when it comes to what they have to fill out with the IRS.

Nothing the Democrats are doing now would silence them. In fact, if FRC really is the same organization as before, and only changed its IRS classification, why would Democrats have waited until now to “silence” them? (Answer: Because there’s no silencing happening.)

Perkins could easily just name one example of how Democrats are trying to silence him. But he can’t because he’s a liar, and FOX News will never ask him for an example, because it’s not a legitimate news outlet.

FRC was a garbage organization in the past; it’ll continue to be one in the future.

Tony Perkins was a professional Christian liar in the past; he’ll continue to be one in the future. (Honesty isn’t valued in his conservative Christian circles.)

This isn’t just about him, though. The letter rightly focuses not just on FRC, but all the other Christian groups that are magically turning themselves into churches (or, ahem, an “association of churches”). It’s telling the IRS to do its damn job and go after all the non-profit groups that are reclassifying as churches for no reason other than to avoid accountability to their own donors as well as the taxpayers.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which could be passed by majority vote if all Democrats stick together and which currently has the enthusiastic approval of conservative Sen. Joe Manchin, would give the IRS an additional $80 billion over the next decade to help with enforcement. If the problem right now is that the IRS doesn’t have the staff to provide proper oversight, then the money could help solve the problem. (The IRS has also been negligent when it comes to punishing conservative churches that endorse Republican candidates from the pulpit, something non-profits are explicitly forbidden from doing as a condition of their tax-exempt status.)

As it stands, a certain group of tax-exempt organizations are lying about who they are and what they do in order to dodge questions about how they spend the money they take in. The irony is that these are conservative Christian organizations that constantly claim to have moral superiority over everybody else. But the U.S. government shouldn’t be afraid to take action against religious organizations that break the rules just because Republicans would throw a fit over it.

All non-profits know the rules. These particular Christian ones are breaking them. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.