Over three years ago, Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa launched an investigation into the financial records of several well-known evangelists and ministries, demanding financial records and accountability practices. Yesterday Grassley’s office released his staff’s research on the topic in this press release (http://finance NULL.senate NULL.gov/newsroom/ranking/release/?id=5fa343ed-87eb-49b0-82b9-28a9502910f7) and at least one of the recommendations in the staff memo raised the ire of the ultra-leftist Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Despite “Americans United’s” name and claim of working for separationism, when it comes to the IRS investigating and punishing churches for speaking out about political candidates, Americans United actually invites the IRS to do so. So you can imagine their unholy outrage when Senator Grassley’s staff, in an extensive 61-page memo reporting their findings, recommended that the tax law prohibiting tax-exempt churches from supporting or opposing political candidates be–oh yes– “repealed or circumscribed.”
According to IRS Code 501(c)(3), tax-exempt, charitable organizations are prohibited from engaging in any campaign activity for or against a political candidate. Because churches are automatically considered “tax-exempt” under the IRS Code, they are also automatically bound by this gag-rule.
Senator Grassley’s staff researched the history of the law (an undebated amendment by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson) and its confusing and unwieldy results ever since. In short, the law is bad for the IRS and for churches and is probably unconstitutional. Here is the summary paragraph on that point on pg. 55 of the memo (available at the link above):
The electioneering prohibition on section 501(c)(3) organizations should be repealed or circumscribed with respect to churches and other section 501(c)(3) organizations (other than private foundations) because “the game is not worth the candle.” The IRS is required to draw on its limited resources to police a provision that has no express purpose that can be deduced from the legislative history, is harsher than what is necessary to address legitimate policy concerns, is vague (and therefore difficult for charities to comply with and for the IRS to enforce), and rarely results in any punishment being imposed on non-complying organizations or excise tax revenues being collected for the U.S. Treasury. Several legal scholars have questioned the constitutionality of the prohibition.The only sure effect of the prohibition has been to cause headaches for the IRS, especially when any church is accused of overstepping the prohibition’s tenuous borders.