Russell Renwicks, a manager in the IRS Mid-Atlantic region, recently said that the IRS has halted any audits of churches engaging in political activity, a violation of nonprofit tax law, according to the Associated Press.
IRS spokesperson who works on large tax-exempt groups, Dean Patterson, said his colleague “misspoke,” but declined to clarify what, if any, work the IRS was doing on evaluating the political activity of churches, saying only, “The IRS continues to run a balanced program that follows up on potential noncompliance.”
A 2009 court ruling said that the IRS must clarify which high-ranking officials are authorized to conduct investigations on the political violations of churches, the AP reported, but so far, the IRS has yet to do so.
Melissa Rogers, a legal scholar and director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina told the AP, ”The impression created is that no one is minding the store. … When there’s an impression the IRS is not enforcing the restriction — that seems to embolden some to cross the line.”
That certainly seems to be the case, as more and more churches are openly addressing politics in this election.
More than 1,000 pastors have decided to challenge IRS law this year by endorsing political candidates in an October event called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”
Televangalist Rev. Billy Graham spearheaded a group of African American pastors that purchased ads in newspapers questioning Obama’s spirituality, which the NAACP called “cherry picking” Christianity.
A church in Texas displayed a sign that read, “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim. The capitalist, not the communist!”
Dean Zerbe, a former senior counsel to the Senate Finance Committee who specializes in tax fraud and abuse, told the AP that church audits are “an extremely hellish area for the IRS to deal with,” since the IRS must balance First Amendment rights with tax law.
Since the IRS adopted such rules on churches in 1945, the agency has revoked tax status from religious institutions just a handful of times.
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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