On Sunday, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica published a lengthy article confirming what atheist activists and white evangelicals have known for decades now: The IRS isn’t doing a damn thing to enforce the Johnson Amendment and stop churches from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit—even though that violates the terms of their non-profit status.
Even if you don’t care about IRS rules, you need to know this: Just about all non-profit groups (including charities, cause-based organizations, and churches) are considered 501(c)(3)s. With that designation, the IRS is saying these groups are not looking to make a profit but rather serve a greater cause. As a way to encourage people to give money to those groups, contributions to them may be deducted on donors’ taxes. It’s theoretically a win-win for both sides.
To keep the 501(c)(3) designation, though, there are certain rules most of these groups must follow: For example, they have to fill out paperwork each year (a “Form 990”) detailing how much money they took in and how much is getting paid out and to whom.
They also cannot endorse political candidates.
Houses of worship actually get an even sweeter deal. They are automatically granted a tax-exempt status (while secular charities have to fill out paperwork to earn the designation) and they don’t have to fill out the Form 990 at all. (Church/state separation groups have argued that the government’s preferential treatment for houses of worship in that regard is unconstitutional.)
But plenty of conservative pastors still argue that these rules are too onerous and they’ve deliberately tried to goad the IRS into revoking their tax-exempt status just so they can file a lawsuit over it.
For several years during Barack Obama’s presidency, hundreds of evangelical churches participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” where they proudly endorsed Republican candidates and then, just to make sure their actions weren’t ignored, sent videos of those sermons directly to the IRS.
The IRS had every reason to take action and revoke the churches’ tax exemptions. They never did.
In fact, over the past few decades, the IRS has only followed its own rules once. Just before the 1992 elections, a group called Branch Ministries ran full-page newspaper ads urging people not to vote for Bill Clinton. The IRS revoked the group’s tax exempt status. There was a lawsuit. The IRS won. (The reporters also cite the Congressional Research Service in saying that another church lost its tax exemption in 2012… but no further details are available.)
That’s it. 70 years of the Johnson Amendment… and maybe two ministries that were punished by the IRS for violating it.
By the time Donald Trump was in office, the violations were even more egregious. There was no need for a concerted effort to endorse candidates because it was apparent to everyone that the IRS wasn’t going to punish pastors for telling church members how to vote. It didn’t help that Trump claimed he got rid of the Johnson Amendment… even though that was a lie. Churches have just been endorsing candidates ever since. (While some churches have also endorsed Democrats, this is overwhelmingly a conservative/Republican issue. They’re the ones with the most to lose if the Johnson Amendment was enforced.)
This is where yesterday’s article comes into play. Reporters Jeremy Schwartz and Jessica Priest attempted to get to the bottom of what the IRS is actually doing about these churches that violate the Johnson Amendment. What they discovered is that no one is minding the store.
At least not publicly.
They found 18 churches over the past two years explicitly violating the Johnson Amendment. (It’s almost certainly many, many more.) These are churches where the actions of the pastor weren’t at all ambiguous. If the IRS enforced its own rules, these churches would instantly lose their tax exemptions. None of them have, and that’s because the IRS doesn’t seem to care:
… The IRS has largely abdicated its enforcement responsibilities as churches have become more brazen. In fact, the number of apparent violations found by ProPublica and the Tribune, and confirmed by three nonprofit tax law experts, are greater than the total number of churches the federal agency has investigated for intervening in political campaigns over the past decade, according to records obtained by the news organizations.
In response to questions, an IRS spokesperson said that the agency “cannot comment on, neither confirm nor deny, investigations in progress, completed in the past nor contemplated.” Asked about enforcement efforts over the past decade, the IRS pointed the news organizations to annual reports that do not contain such information.
Why is the IRS acting like the CIA? Who knows. They’re saying they can’t confirm or deny investigations into churches that are openly and brazenly violating the law as if enforcing rules that were purposely broken amounts to some sort of national security issue.
It didn’t help that the IRS needed a high-level official signing off on such investigations for a while, and that no one was employed in that position, “leaving lower IRS employees to initiate church investigations.” Nor did it help that the IRS just stopped looking at churches’ political activity for several years during the Obama administration.
As Andrew Seidel of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told the reporters, churches already don’t tell the IRS how much money they’re taking in or where it’s going. By giving them enough leeway to endorse candidates, the IRS is “essentially creating super PACs that are black holes.”
Here’s how useless the IRS is at the moment when it comes to prosecuting churches that violate their rules:
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from ProPublica and the Tribune last year, the IRS produced a severely redacted spreadsheet indicating the agency had launched inquiries into 16 churches since 2011. IRS officials shielded the results of the probes, and they have declined to answer specific questions.
Just 16?! What’s the point of reporting churches to the IRS if no one’s paying any attention to the complaints? And what does it even mean that they’ve “launched” inquiries? If hundreds of pastors are prodding the IRS to come after them by telling people how to vote, and the IRS is barely lifting a finger—and, even then, only against a few of those churches—what the hell are they doing? (It’s not clear yet if the new IRS funding passed by Democrats will mean the agency will more seriously investigate churches.)
Ultimately, this all boils down to one question: If the IRS isn’t going to enforce its rules, then what’s the point of having them?
Either the IRS needs to eliminate the Johnson Amendment and allow all non-profits to have the option to play politics, or it must enforce their rules even if that means going after Christian churches. Those churches will inevitably cry “persecution,” like they always do when their privilege gets checked, but as usual, they’d really just be whining about how the rules are being applied to them, too.
The irony in all this is that the churches pushing to repeal the Johnson Amendment say they’re doing it because they don’t want to be beholden to the government. They say they want the freedom to preach whatever they want, including political endorsements, and they don’t want the government telling them what they can’t say… and yet, by opposing the Johnson Amendment and by demanding a right to promote candidates, they’re effectively becoming tools of the Republican Party.
Need proof of that? Yesterday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted out this statement hours after the article was published:
No context was offered. It’s not clear if he’s responding to the article, or that’s just coincidence and he’s just making a general irresponsible declaration that no one should be paying taxes at all (much less getting punished for not paying them). It’s idiotic either way.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)