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FFRF to IRS: Do your job, assholes!
November 14, 2012 5:29 PM   Subscribe

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (previously, previously) has announced that it is suing the IRS over it's apparent unwillingness to enforce the rules against religious electioneering, banned by the The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
posted by sarastro (88 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is the IRS pursuing rules against electioneering for other non-profits, those that aren't churches? Because if not, it seems that this lawsuit is trying to sue to force the use of a (presumably discretionary) investigative power, which is not going to fly.
posted by Lemurrhea at 5:38 PM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not edited to add: of course, the lawsuit not flying doesn't mean I think the IRS is in the right. They should definitely be investigating these offences across the board.
posted by Lemurrhea at 5:39 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I couldn't possibly agree more with the FFRF, but this suit is basically Orly Taitz-level frivolous.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:40 PM on November 14, 2012


Theoretically, this is just furthering the goals of the Pulpit Freedom crowd, no? If the IRS doesn't touch it, they can't get it struck down.

Better a good law that isn't enforced than an explicit ruling that weakens chuch-state separation?
posted by Bromius at 5:41 PM on November 14, 2012




I couldn't possibly agree more with the FFRF, but this suit is basically Orly Taitz-level frivolous.

The backstory is there is a movement among preachers daring the IRS to oppress them.

This is going to come to a head, one way or another.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:45 PM on November 14, 2012 [15 favorites]


Seems like a waste of time amd money. Prosecutorial discretion.
posted by Area Man at 5:49 PM on November 14, 2012


The backstory is there is a movement among preachers daring the IRS to oppress them.

The issue is absolutely a real one, but the notion that a lawsuit will force the IRS into enforcement action is preposterous, and I am certain the FFRF knows that. It's purely a PR action.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:51 PM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have been "religious electioneering" for years. This is nothing new. Why would the IRS get involved now?
posted by republican at 5:55 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


The issue is absolutely a real one, but the notion that a lawsuit will force the IRS into enforcement action is preposterous, and I am certain the FFRF knows that. It's purely a PR action.

Sure, it's a PR action. So what ? Why should only preachers use it for advertising ?

These churches are breaking the IRS rules. Either abolish the rule, or enforce it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:56 PM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's purely a PR action.

So is the religious electioneering, but they can both still have serious consequences.
posted by DU at 5:56 PM on November 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


Or is this one of those "this is a great issue to punch hippies over to burnish my 'moderate' credentials" things?
posted by DU at 5:57 PM on November 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


Not a lawyer, so if someone wants to go into more detail on why it's frivolous I would be interested. It seems like they have a pretty good point to me, as a secular organization they are disadvantaged by having to follow the law on electioneering while religious groups do not solely because of their religion, it seems like a pretty clear violation to me.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:02 PM on November 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


Not a theologian, but didn't Jesus say "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's"

Saying not only should you pay taxes, but you should stay out of politics altogether?
posted by Ad hominem at 6:16 PM on November 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


It's very simple. Take away the special tax exempt status. Problem solved. Then the Church's money will be free speech, too. (Actually, how about the old school baptists come back to life and set things straight instead and call out these new breed Christ-for-profit hypocrites for the heretics they are? Maybe it's time for America to have a Baptist-led Inquisition...)
posted by saulgoodman at 6:16 PM on November 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


As a slight derail: this is almost certainly a bridge too far (for now) but I think we should tax churches, regardless whether or not there's a political bent to them. I think of all those megachurches with millions and billions, with much (most? almost all?) of it going back into the church and none really going to the needy. We could set up all sorts of loopholes, as in the small, poor churches are exempt; much like the top bracket of income taxes, we just tax the truly huge churches. If your church donates x amount of its income to charity--real charity, not "mission trips" to some third-world country in which a few dozen congregants stay in nice hotels and "reach out" to those poor people by dangling food in front of a bible. That's bullshit charity. Of course, this gets into grey areas and it would be more than a bit to work out, but hey, that's what the IRS is for.

As in most policy changes, I just ask myself "How do they do it in Europe? (Namely Scandinavia)." And go from there.
posted by zardoz at 6:17 PM on November 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


"I just ask myself "How do they do it in Europe? (Namely Scandinavia).""

Have established churches that receive a share of tax funding on a per-member basis? That's the direction you're going?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:20 PM on November 14, 2012 [16 favorites]


I'm torn between my desire to see the law enforced and my fear that "churches pay no taxes and do whatever the fuck they want" is the most likely outcome of litigation.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:20 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't see how sanctioning churches for political activities will fly in the era of Citizens United.
posted by anewnadir at 6:23 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really don't want the IRS deciding what church expenditures are legitimately charitable.
posted by Area Man at 6:24 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


So it's fuck the constitution in its entirety then? Well, then, let's really and truly fuck it, if that's where we want to go now. Enough cherry-picking. Let's let whatever idiot's have got the political winds at their backs make up all the rules as they go from now on. That approach surely can't go wrong.

I wish the FFR foundation the best of luck, but like others here, I hope they don't accidentally end up demolishing the pathetically tiny paper-thin remnants of one of our nation's most important and unique founding principles in the process. They'd better be prepared to bring every procedural maneuver and legal argument in the book to bear to win it.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:33 PM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


How is penalizing groups for political speech an important constitutional value?
posted by Area Man at 6:36 PM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Read up a little about the persecution of virtually everyone (including religious believers) under the old European systems in which the state and church's power became hopelessly entangled, and get back to me when you can make a credible argument that doesn't ignore most of our nation's history.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:39 PM on November 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


(For example, you might start with reading about the leading role of early American Baptists in first advocating for the hard separation of church and state.)
posted by saulgoodman at 6:40 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


How is penalizing groups for political speech an important constitutional value?

Taxes are a penalty ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:40 PM on November 14, 2012 [19 favorites]


I'm torn between my desire to see the law enforced and my fear that "churches pay no taxes and do whatever the fuck they want" is the most likely outcome of litigation.

But the latter is the status quo now. So what is there to lose?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:43 PM on November 14, 2012 [17 favorites]


How is penalizing groups for political speech an important constitutional value?

Why does the church get to spend money on electioneering tax free while I can't deduct my political donations from my taxes?
posted by Talez at 6:54 PM on November 14, 2012 [19 favorites]


Fine, how is taxing people for endorsing candidates an important constitutional value?

I don't see anything in European history suggesting that taxing churches is the key to preserving liberty. Having the IRS monitor sermons and decide whether they cross a line is deeply problematic, and I understand why the IRS is not aggresive in its enforcement.

Are provisions of the Internal Revenue Code really central to most of US history?
We haven't had an income tax for that long.
posted by Area Man at 6:55 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fine, how is taxing people for endorsing candidates an important constitutional value?

The question here is, why does FFRF have to obey the rules but the churches don't? That is a separate question from if the rule itself is good or not.

If we don't want the rule, fine, but it makes no sense to discriminate against the secular non-profits.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:02 PM on November 14, 2012 [10 favorites]


I was always under the impression that the reason religious groups aren't taxed is because they're supposedly apolitical. When preachers and priests are talking politics and telling who their followers should vote for, they are doing exactly the one thing that makes their tax-free status corrupt. Taxing religious groups that do that kind of thing isn't imposing some burden on them, it's taking away a privilege they've shown themselves undeserving of.
posted by eurypteris at 7:08 PM on November 14, 2012 [28 favorites]


Fine, how is taxing people for endorsing candidates an important constitutional value?

I'll give you a hint. It's in the first thirty words of the constitution.
posted by Talez at 7:11 PM on November 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


Area Man: You're being silly and obviously disingenuous in suddenly focusing only on my hyperbolic/hamburger remarks about taxing churches... My point is that there are very good historical reasons even from a religious perspective to keep the church's involvement in affairs of the state and political activity in general to an absolute minimum. And as others have pointed out, it's literally right there in the constitution! If that's suddenly not so important, then why do we continue to make such a fuss about certain other cherished constitutional principles of even less obvious intent (like certain provisions providing for the maintenance of a well-regulated militia)?
posted by saulgoodman at 7:15 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


My point is that there are very good historical reasons even from a religious perspective to keep the church's involvement in affairs of the state and political activity in general to an absolute minimum.

Historical reasons? This reason happened less than three weeks ago.
posted by Talez at 7:19 PM on November 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


So I can't tell if I'm understanding this right. Are people suggesting a reading of the establishment clause where it prohibits churches from engaging with political issues? Because that just seems like a really bizarre overreach to me. Surely if free exercise of religion means anything, it includes the right to express views that are informed by your religious beliefs.

Now, if it's just the (kind of boring) taxation issue, where churches are being taxed like apolitical organizations just because they're churches, sure, I guess that sounds like we should be taxing churches more. I'll admit I'm having trouble getting worked up over it. Can someone explain why I should consider it a serious issue?
posted by moss at 7:34 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


You should be getting worked up because organizations are using their status as religious organizations to argue that they are above and exempt from the law, and anybody with an ounce of reflection and foresight should be able to look at that and understand why a free society can't tolerate that.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:36 PM on November 14, 2012 [22 favorites]


Who said you had to get worked up? It's a free country.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:40 PM on November 14, 2012


Religion isn't silly at all. It's deadly serious. And that's why our time-honored systems for keeping it from destabilizing our society shouldn't be tampered with by well-meaning crusaders whose emotionally-appealing arguments lack historical perspective. We've already gone too far toward dismantling that historical wall of separation, and it's already damaged the integrity of our society enough.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:52 PM on November 14, 2012 [15 favorites]


Lotta question marks in this thread?
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 7:52 PM on November 14, 2012


The first 30 words gets you part way through the preamble, but I assume the reference was meant to be to the First Amendment. That same Amendment has free speech and free exercise guarantees, and the Establishment Clause is not a prohibition on religious people or organizations getting involved in politics.

Religious leaders have long been involved in political issues and will continue to be. Trying to use the tax code to silence them is not particularly praiseworthy.
posted by Area Man at 8:03 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now, if it's just the (kind of boring) taxation issue, where churches are being taxed like apolitical organizations just because they're churches, sure, I guess that sounds like we should be taxing churches more. I'll admit I'm having trouble getting worked up over it. Can someone explain why I should consider it a serious issue?

Because a secular 501(c)(3) that wanted to influence the election from the other side would be legally restricted from doing so.

Let's say you run a secular charity to provide support to people in need in the homosexual community. Don't you think you should have the same rights as the Mormon Church to weigh in on ballot initiatives important to the gay community?
posted by Drinky Die at 8:09 PM on November 14, 2012 [16 favorites]


The first 30 words gets you part way through the preamble, but I assume the reference was meant to be to the First Amendment.

No. The government's job is to promote the general welfare. Article 1, Section 8 gives it the authority to do so through taxation.
posted by Talez at 8:11 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Religious leaders have long been involved in political issues and will continue to be. Trying to use the tax code to silence them is not particularly praiseworthy.

If they pay the taxes, then they don't have to shut up. They could even expand their political activities rather than trying to fly under the radar like they do now.

There's no reason why they should be exempt from a rule that applies to every other organisation. Any board of directors has a clear interest and involvement in political issues, but they're not allowed to fire employees for voting the 'wrong' way. How is this different?
posted by harriet vane at 8:18 PM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


anybody with an ounce of reflection and foresight should be able to look at that and understand why a free society can't tolerate that.

This may seem self-evident to you, but it's really, really not. In fact, income tax itself does not seem self-evident, and as someone else noted, has only been around for the last hundred years.

Also, this is not an issue that affects only people preaching from the pulpit. If this succeeded, it would also get rid of "get out and vote" Sundays that are a main Democratic driver in certain areas.

I think nonprofits shouldn't have to pay any taxes either, but I also don't think either should be prohibited from getting involved in politics.
posted by corb at 8:48 PM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't understand the arguments on either side of this issue.

On the one hand, as far as I can make out, the government does not tax churches because it would supposedly be an infringement on free exercise, which seems weird to me. After all, the First Amendment can't be guaranteeing absolutely free exercise of religion. Suppose Congress passed a national fire code that specified the maximum occupancy for different sizes of buildings. Would the Court rule such a code unconstitutional on the grounds that it would infringe on free exercise? The Court has already ruled that drug use doesn't get a pass under the guise of free exercise. And the reasoning in that case seems apt:
It is a permissible reading of the [free exercise clause]...to say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended...
Why should taxes be any different?

On the other hand, people seem to think that the government has a history and an interest in keeping religious people and institutions from influencing the government, which also seems weird to me. As far as I can tell, the Establishment Clause does not prohibit religious people from being involved in government or from supporting legislation on the basis of their religious beliefs. Nor does it prohibit religious organizations from being involved in politics. The Establishment Clause prohibits Congress from making any particular religious organization a national religion. It prohibits state sponsored churches (or synagogues or mosques or whatever). The Establishment clause in no way prohibits religious electioneering; IRS regulations prohibit religious electioneering.

Those regulations might be found unconstitutional as infringing on free exercise, but if the code is written to apply to non-profits in general, then I don't see the problem with the law and it should be enforced. The reasoning would then be the same as the above-quoted Court decision.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:11 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Have established churches that receive a share of tax funding on a per-member basis? That's the direction you're going?"

Well, unless I'm mistaken, German church members pay an extra tax. Where that money goes is what I don't know.
posted by zardoz at 9:12 PM on November 14, 2012


corb: "I think nonprofits shouldn't have to pay any taxes either, but I also don't think either should be prohibited from getting involved in politics."

There's already a legal system in place for this. Lots of nonprofits establish 501(c)(4) political advocacy arms that are separate from their primary charitable 501(c)(3) organization. The 501(c)(4) branch is taxed, but allowed to lobby and participate in political campaigns that the c3 is prohibited from engaging in.

If the churches want to get involved in politics, they can form a c4, and pay taxes just like everybody else. We already have a system for this, and thanks to Citizens United, it's actually pretty flexible and easy to set up. There's no reason for churches to be skirting the law like this.
posted by schmod at 9:15 PM on November 14, 2012 [16 favorites]


It does seem kinda a dumb law - why not just let non-profits get involved in politics (and not pay taxes)?
posted by Long Way To Go at 9:17 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jonathan Livengood: " Suppose Congress passed a national fire code that specified the maximum occupancy for different sizes of buildings. Would the Court rule such a code unconstitutional on the grounds that it would infringe on free exercise? The Court has already ruled that drug use doesn't get a pass under the guise of free exercise. "

It might not strictly be the law, but my local jurisdiction (DC) is basically afraid to enforce building or zoning codes on churches. It's political suicide to go up against an established church in this town, and even when it's been done, the churches basically thumb their noses at the city government, and say "we can do whatever we want."

Just like the taxicabs never get tickets, the city will never take action against a church, except in the most glaring of circumstances. Even then, the church usually wins, and subsequently politically retaliates against whichever elected official was responsible for that action.
posted by schmod at 9:19 PM on November 14, 2012


It does seem kinda a dumb law - why not just let non-profits get involved in politics (and not pay taxes)?

They are tax exempt because they provide beneficial charitable services to the community. It's not about discouraging speech, but encouraging people to give back to society. Election ads are great and all, but I think polling will find people think we have too much of them and they don't need to be encouraged with tax free status.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:25 PM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


I've been hesitant to weigh in because this isn't an area I'm super-knowledgeable about, but I think I can clear up a few things in this thread.

The ban on electioneering by churches is a prohibition against advocating for specific CANDIDATES. Churches are allowed to advocate ISSUES. Here's a pretty good FAQ, including: "Prohibited activities may include letters of endorsement or opposition printed on church letterhead, church-sponsored distribution of campaign literature, pastors advising congregants to vote for or against candidates from the pulpit, the display of campaign signs on church property and other activities that could be construed as endorsing or opposing a candidate."

Church specifically ARE allowed to engage in (non-partisan) voter registration drives, advocating voting generally, driving people to the polls, hosting non-partisan voter forums, and preparing comprehensive voter guides (that detail various candidates and their positions or, in the alternative, detail church stances on a variety of political questions -- however, it is problematic if a church does both at once and seems to be comparing one candidate or party against its belief statements). Here's the US Catholic Church's official one-sheet voter guide (PDF) from this year, which is an issue guide and does not mention candidates, for example.

This page (from a conservative Christian group) is an okay summary of the current state of the law and includes some citations to relevant laws and regulations (which is why I include it).

There are two major issues that I (as a relative layman in this area, but someone interested in the intersection of law and religion) think are influencing the situation as it currently stands, one historical and one current. First, historically, the most important avenue for African-American participation in political life in the 20th Century was through the black churches, and many African-American political leaders (Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson) have also been religious leaders. There is nothing that prevents religious leaders from, as private people, also running for office or advocating for candidates. This created a complicated situation vis-a-vis churches advocating for candidates, because the exclusion of African-Americans from mainstream American institutions and their continued legal and social oppression meant that they had few avenues available for organizing besides the church. So historically you have a situation where strict enforcement of rules against electioneering could, potentially, have the effect of specifically targeting African American voters. This is less of an issue with the rising generation of African-American politicians, such as Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson Jr., who are not as wholly dependent upon churches for political organizing and support as the Civil Rights generation was.

Secondly, the rise of politicized conservative Christianity and its close ties to the GOP has led to many conservative-leaning churches noticing that, hey, this is not a bad way to organize and the IRS is hesitant to be seen as persecuting religious groups; we can point to the black churches as a precedent (as, indeed, someone did upthread). You will notice that in many of the cases that the FFRF cites, the religious leader in question very carefully notes that voting for a set of issues closely identified with the Democratic Party is sinful, but never outright says which party or person to vote for. It's quite clear from context, but they are careful to frame it so that there's a plausible way to say "This is issue advocacy, not electioneering for a specific candidate." Bishop Jenky, for example, said in his letter read from all diocesan pulpits at all Masses right before election day:
"Today, Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord. They are objectively guilty of grave sin. [...] I therefore call upon every practicing Catholic in this Diocese to vote. Be faithful to Christ and to your Catholic Faith. May God guide and protect his Holy Church, and may God bless America.
It's quite clear which party you're to vote for (especially when taken in concert with his widely-publicized sermon earlier in the election season comparing Obama to Hitler and Stalin because of Obamacare's birth control mandate, and his appearances at GOP campaign events in the state). But the statement never actually names a party or candidate -- just an issue inseparably tied to particular parties and candidates. And while some religious leaders are advocating for particular candidates from the pulpit, more of them named by the FFRF are doing political party advocacy disguised as "issue" advocacy.

Finally, one reason (that nobody has mentioned yet) tax-exempt organizations cannot engage in advocacy for specific politicians is that politicians could then, in theory, hand out tax exemptions as a reward for campaigning for them.

Anyway, I hope this is a little helpful in clearing up some misconceptions I saw repeated several times in this thread, and I hope a mefite with more knowledge on this topic will come along and clarify any errors I made.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:35 PM on November 14, 2012 [20 favorites]


It might not strictly be the law, but my local jurisdiction (DC) is basically afraid to enforce building or zoning codes on churches. It's political suicide to go up against an established church in this town, and even when it's been done, the churches basically thumb their noses at the city government, and say "we can do whatever we want."

I guess all I can say to that is, "Huh, I did not know that." Again, that strikes me as really bizarre. But I guess I should be used to the really bizarre by now.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:51 PM on November 14, 2012


If the churches want to get involved in politics, they can form a c4, and pay taxes just like everybody else. We already have a system for this, and thanks to Citizens United, it's actually pretty flexible and easy to set up. There's no reason for churches to be skirting the law like this.

This falls short of "we're above your petty laws", which is the point of a lot of this.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:28 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Taxpayers ought not have to subsidize the political activities of Christian, Catholic and Mormon right-wing extremists. If organized religions want to violate the law, further erode separation of church and state, and get stiffs like Romney elected by spreading cash around, they are more than welcome to do so, but not on our collective dime.

It is time religious gangsters stop acting like they are above the law — whether it is threatening followers with spiritual and social punishment for not picking the right candidate to vote for, buying laws in various states through slush funds and shady accounting practices, or covering up child molestation — and if they will not stop, our democratically-elected government needs to step in and either take away their tax-exempt status or put their ringleaders in jail for a spell. If the government will not do its legally mandated duty, then the public has the right to bring them to court and get them to do their job. Enough is enough.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:29 PM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]




How is penalizing groups for political speech an important constitutional value?

It's about mis-representation. If people donate to a charity for say, feeding homeless people, they should have a reasonable expectation that that money won't then be used to pay for political ads saying $CANDIDATE is in league with the devil because they support abortion rights.

There's nothing wrong with a preacher saying what he likes on his own time and dime - free speech after all - but when he starts making explicitly political statements (i.e. for/against specific parties or candidates) from a podium funded by charitable donations, that's crossing the line of using charity funds for non-charitable purposes.

Equally, the US grants tax-exempt status to charities on the basis that charitable donations for a charitable purpose are already for the public good, and therefore taxing them (taxes are for the purpose of funding the public good) is rather nonsensical.

If a charity is using charitable funds for NON charitable purposes though - such as funding partisan political speech that is explicitly not for the benefit of all - then they're not a charity and should pay taxes, just like every other business, so a portion of their funds CAN go to funding the public welfare.

Non-religious groups have to set up separate non-charities that pay taxes in order to do partisan non-charitable work, and fund them separately, so that people know that donations to such an organisation will be going towards a partisan goal, rather than the non-partisan charitable works of the main organisation.

A get-out-the-vote drive, as long as it's non-partisan, would seem to be an example of something that would class as a charity doing charitable work. A get-out-the-vote drive for only one party, while say supporting voter suppression of the other party would not be a charity, but a partisan political organisation that is not working for the public good, but the specific benefit of a small part of it at the cost of others.

Why should churches get to break the rules that other non-religious organisations have to abide by, to whit, allowing them to use charitable donations for non-charitable work and political activism, and getting a tax break to boot?
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:57 AM on November 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


Good.
posted by clarknova at 1:17 AM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]




Fair point, but good luck getting the IRS to do anything about it. From my understanding, they routinely avoid these kinds of politically charged tangles, seemingly to bypass back-door legislating.
posted by likeatoaster at 5:20 AM on November 15, 2012


There is a time honored solution to this mess. Require churches to show the amount they directly spent on charity and education functions, in order to fully deduct their taxes by that amount, plus an exemption for operating costs. The rest is a business or political enterprise and should be taxed at a fair rate. I would also tax those churches higher whose methods include threatening people's souls for not paying their donations, because that is pure idolatry and religious extortion.
posted by Brian B. at 5:53 AM on November 15, 2012


Taxpayers ought not have to subsidize the political activities of Christian, Catholic and Mormon right-wing extremists. If organized religions want to violate the law, further erode separation of church and state, and get stiffs like Romney elected by spreading cash around, they are more than welcome to do so, but not on our collective dime.

Can you explain this to me? I agree that taxpayers should never have to subsidize the political activities of any kind of church, anywhere - it's why I've argued against any time the government gives money to churches or religious institutions. But if they aren't taking government money, how is it them doing these things on our dime?

Equally, the US grants tax-exempt status to charities on the basis that charitable donations for a charitable purpose are already for the public good, and therefore taxing them (taxes are for the purpose of funding the public good) is rather nonsensical.


I don't know that it is just public good stuff, though. 501(c)3 organizations are often...not really charities in the way that people think of them. They're very often "I want to educate people on my particular brand of politics." The only difference is that they can only spend a percentage of their funds on electioneering for specific candidates. So that's what's so weird and arbitrary about this is that it's only the election bit that stops them.
posted by corb at 6:16 AM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I oppose the tax exempt status of churches on all possible grounds. Gonna send $50 to the FFRF even if it is quixotic.

Fuck churches, most profitable non-profit racket there is. We solve the budget crisis by taxing them all.
posted by spitbull at 6:20 AM on November 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


I couldn't care less about whether churches pay taxes or not, but I think it's a pretty slippery slope to equate paying taxes and free speech. That opens up some horrendous possibilities for silencing individuals if we're basing it on their tax status. What's next, only citizens have rights?
posted by blue_beetle at 6:37 AM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


How hard is it to establish a church for tax purposes? I wonder if you could force the IRS on this issue by organizing a tax-deductible church that does massive amounts of electioneering? Or if it would end up like Steven Colbert's superpac?
posted by Hactar at 6:40 AM on November 15, 2012


suing the IRS over it's apparent unwillingness to enforce the rules against religious electioneering, banned by the The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

This is unclear, but the thing the FRF alleges is banned is the non-enforcement, not the electioneering.
posted by Jahaza at 6:58 AM on November 15, 2012


I don't actually have a big problem with the lines drawn by the current set of laws, but (1) I can understand why the IRS wouldn't be too interested in putting much effort into enforcing those laws and (2) I don't believe this aspect of the income tax (which is authorized by the 16th amendment, not the preamble to the constitution) is an important feature of the constitutional separation between church and state. I worry that those who do believe this feature of the tax code is of constitutional importance are hoping to surpress the speech and religious practice of those with whom they disagree, which I see as being much more dangerous than the IRS's unwillingness to vigorously respond to pastors who endorse candidates and engage in other electioneering.

The IRS has a limited budget and plenty of tax cheats to pursue. Its officers have to make decisions about how many resources to put into enforcing various aspects of the tax code. I doubt that a federal judge is going to second guess the decision the IRS has made to focus on other issues. (Think of Obama choosing not to deport certain persons brought to the US as children. He could tell the immigrations people to work on deporting those folks, but is simply choosing to have the government employees focus on other things. There are many, many laws and many people who may be civilly or criminally violating those laws. Prosecutors, investigators, and other types of executive branch enforcers regularly make policy decisions about how to best allocate their resources.)
posted by Area Man at 7:01 AM on November 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


This electioneering is not just a breach of unenforced on-the-books laws. I believe that when applying for 501-C-3 tax exempt status, the applicant must attest that they will not attempt to influence elections. Maybe there is a case for some sort of civil suit, fraud or filing false documents, etc. Perhaps someone could donate to one of these churches, and then sue for improper use of funds.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:27 AM on November 15, 2012


I believe that when applying for 501-C-3 tax exempt status, the applicant must attest that they will not attempt to influence elections. Maybe there is a case for some sort of civil suit, fraud or filing false documents, etc.

No, this is definitely not the case. They are allowed to act to influence elections as long as they don't advocate for specific candidates.
posted by Jahaza at 7:39 AM on November 15, 2012


a good law that isn't enforced

...is not a good law.
posted by snottydick at 8:00 AM on November 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm sorry guys, I'm kind of sleep-deprived and am having trouble following this thread for some reason.

This idea appeals to me but I'm seeing some contention--some of which I understand and some of which I think I'm misunderstanding, so I'm hoping you guys can help my brain work.

saulgoodman - can you please explain to me exactly what you mean here?
And that's why our time-honored systems for keeping it from destabilizing our society shouldn't be tampered with by well-meaning crusaders whose emotionally-appealing arguments lack historical perspective. We've already gone too far toward dismantling that historical wall of separation, and it's already damaged the integrity of our society enough.
By time-honored systems do you just mean the laws we have on the books (some of which are clearly not enforced)? And what historical perspective do you mean?

I'm just not completely following you here and I kind of need where you're coming from explained to me like I'm an idiot child if you've got the patience.

I'm currently personally coming from the perspective that the laws against religious electioneering are important but obviously aren't being enforced and that we should enforce them. And that this might be one of the few venues we have to pursue that? Basically, that it seems like it's either try something like this or do nothing at all, which seems worse to me.

But I very well might not have the 'historical perspective' you're talking about so.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 8:13 AM on November 15, 2012


The same politicians who have most benefited from religions electioneering are the same politicians who have been cutting IRS funding, despite the IRS bringing in US$9 for every $1 they are given.

Tax all religious groups. Period.
posted by QIbHom at 8:19 AM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm currently personally coming from the perspective that the laws against religious electioneering are important but obviously aren't being enforced and that we should enforce them. And that this might be one of the few venues we have to pursue that? Basically, that it seems like it's either try something like this or do nothing at all, which seems worse to me.

There are no laws against religious electioneering. There are laws against 501(c)(3) groups engaging in electioneering.
posted by Jahaza at 8:30 AM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are no laws against religious electioneering. There are laws against 501(c)(3) groups engaging in electioneering.

To clarify, this is what I meant/what I thought the FPP text meant.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 8:40 AM on November 15, 2012


Drinky Die: They are tax exempt because they provide beneficial charitable services to the community. It's not about discouraging speech, but encouraging people to give back to society. Election ads are great and all, but I think polling will find people think we have too much of them and they don't need to be encouraged with tax free status.
I think a pretty strong argument can be made that political advocacy can provide very real services to the community. Thomas Paine, MLK, both sides of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") - all of these are attempting to aid society.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:22 AM on November 15, 2012


Why should taxes be any different?

The principle behind the tax-exemption for religious groups is rooted in the separation of Church & State. Here's an excerpt from the majority opinion in the relevant Supreme Court case from 1970:

"The grant of a tax exemption is not sponsorship, since the government does not transfer part of its revenue to churches, but simply abstains from demanding that the church support the state."

This is the rock, and it's made out of free speech and religious freedom. The hard place is the fact that we are essentially providing a space where, even if we could overturn Citizen's United, unlimited donations could flow into the coffers of an unregulated political mouthpiece.

It's very simple. Take away the special tax exempt status. Problem solved. Then the Church's money will be free speech, too.

It's not actually an easy knot to untangle, if you care about freedom of speech, the wall between Church & State, AND good government. I'm not a religious person. I'll even admit to some degree of prejudice AGAINST religious people and organizations. That said, I don't see a good future for any country that includes the government getting involved in religion on any level.

As several people have pointed out, there are religious groups on both sides of the fence that engage in political activity. If a church is advocating for something you disagree with, get organized and advocate right back.
posted by snottydick at 12:01 PM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


But if they aren't taking government money, how is it them doing these things on our dime?

Approximately $71 billion of the money that churches have is tax revenue that otherwise does not get collected by the IRS. To pay for basic services that everyone uses (including churches), since the money has to come from somewhere, we have to make that up by raising taxes on non-church parties or by borrowing it from lenders. America subsidizes the business of religion on the backs of taxpayers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:03 PM on November 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


tax revenue that otherwise does not get collected by the IRS

I wonder what the Constitutional space is for taking away the ability of an individual to make a tax-free contribution to a religious organization, so long as the organization itself does not pay any taxes.
posted by snottydick at 12:05 PM on November 15, 2012


snottydick: "That said, I don't see a good future for any country that includes the government getting involved in religion on any level."

I don't see how this is the government "getting involved in religion," any more than we'd reasonably expect it to do so in other areas. If we saw a priest robbing a bank, the police would (rightfully) respond to it.

Again, the rules for qualifying for tax-exempt status as a 501c3 are incredibly low, and I really don't think you can make the argument that the government is being unfairly discriminatory in terms of where it's currently putting that bar.

If the church wants to operate a business that's unrelated to its mission as a nonprofit, the IRS actually has a provision for that, and a lot of churches take advantage of it. If the church wants to act as a lobbying organization, it can go form a 501c4 that's separate from the church's primary organization. A number of such organizations already exist, and Citizens United makes it very easy for the c4 to coordinate with the c3.

The government is not getting involved in religion, any more than saying "Your bakery is not a church" or "Electioneering does not fit within any conceivable definition of a church." Churches can and do own bakeries and participate in campaigns -- however, they must do so separately, and play by the same rules as all of the non-churchy bakeries and political campaigns.

Establishing the rules in this way also prevents people from establishing fake churches as tax shelters. If you provide a basic set of guidelines, the government doesn't need to get into the sticky business of deciding what is, and isn't a church. If we allowed churches to run businesses or campaigns, I'm sure we'd quickly see WalMart and FreedomPAC reestablish themselves as churches.
posted by schmod at 12:31 PM on November 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think many people are missing the point here. There is no problem with churches being tax-exempt non-profits. In that sense, they are no different than Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS which is a tax-exempt non-profit. The reason is that there is little to be gained by taxing them. Like any business they take in revenue (in this case donations) and then subtract from that their expenses. What is left over is taxable profit. Except that they spend almost all their revenue so they have no profit to tax. That is the meaning of "non-profit." So taxing churches directly, like any non-profit, is really non-productive because there is very little profit to tax.

The real problem is the tax deduction taken by the donors. You don't get to take a tax deduction for contributing to Karl Rove's non-profit. Likewise you shouldn't get a tax deduction for contributing to a church.

Churches should be treated like any other non-profit organization. They should not be treated as a charitable organization that allows donor tax deductions. True charities need to be certified as 501(c)(3) organizations to allow donor deductions. Currently, churches do not require this certification in order to allow donor tax deductions, even if they aren't really spending their money on charity work.

This gets to Corb's question: "Can you explain this to me? I agree that taxpayers should never have to subsidize the political activities of any kind of church, anywhere - it's why I've argued against any time the government gives money to churches or religious institutions. But if they aren't taking government money, how is it them doing these things on our dime?"

It is done on our dime, not because the church doesn't pay taxes. It is on our dime because the donors take billions of dollars of tax deductions on their contributions to churches, most it not spent on charity work. Those deductions are government money going directly to subsidize churches.

Churches could have separate 501(c)(3) organizations to do true charitable work, but donations to the church itself should not be deductible to the donor. After all, churches are just social organizations like a bowling league, bridge club or health club. None of these are tax deductible to donors.
posted by JackFlash at 1:54 PM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


What problem are people hoping to solve with these various proposals? Is the idea that churches are too powerful, too political, given advantages that don't apply to health clubs and bowling leagues?

Also, is there some basis for all the claims that churches don't actually do charitable work? Any church that I've ever attended was running and contributing to various charitable efforts. Are we pretending that those soup kitchens, food shelves, clothing drives, etc. don't exist?
posted by Area Man at 2:26 PM on November 15, 2012


Yes, Area Man, it's about bowling leagues. You've nailed it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:09 PM on November 15, 2012


Also, is there some basis for all the claims that churches don't actually do charitable work? Any church that I've ever attended was running and contributing to various charitable efforts. Are we pretending that those soup kitchens, food shelves, clothing drives, etc. don't exist?

I think you've inadvertently credited most food banks and soup kitchens to churches. Feeding America is one of the largest, working on the charity model (as opposed to the union model). It has about 63,000 kitchens and pantries in the US, according to this article. Most of it is donated from corporate stores. The nation's first food banks began, apparently, in the 1960's.

I would further note that most churches probably do some charitable work in token form, since it is largely symbolic to their salvation, measured in how much one impoverishes oneself. It is not a humanistic goal of theirs to end poverty, which is firmly rooted in their theology. Rather, most of them in America seek to end government aid altogether, which is less of an irony that it appears to be, considering that they have a long history of preaching against anesthesia, health insurance, vaccinations, etc.
posted by Brian B. at 7:01 PM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Also, is there some basis for all the claims that churches don't actually do charitable work? Any church that I've ever attended was running and contributing to various charitable efforts. Are we pretending that those soup kitchens, food shelves, clothing drives, etc. don't exist?"

Many churches do considerable charitable work -- and personally I'm comfortable including building fancy religious buildings, running services, and other typical religious activities in that definition (as the IRS generally does) -- but even if you exclude church operations, plenty of churches engage in all kinds of charities from foster care programs to soup kitchens. But there are also plenty that engage in activities that would make many ordinary Americans go, "Um ...." For example, using donations to churches to finance extremely high pastor salaries or benefits, like this guy earning $900,000 in 2007, or this guy with a $6 million church-owned lakefront mansion, or this guy with a little over $3 million in salary and benefits in 2005. Or, here's a Catholic hospital in Illinois that lost its property tax exemption for providing only $800,000 in charitable care (while claiming to provide $38 million by claiming stuff that wasn't allowed to be called charitable care under the law), with revenues of more than $700 million and turning a profit after its claimed $38 million in charitable care was deducted.

Amounts given to "charitable causes" (outside of church operations) can vary widely; Businessweek reported
"According to an official church Welfare Services fact sheet, the [LDS] church gave $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid in more than 178 countries and territories during the 25 years between 1985 and 2010. A fact sheet from the previous year indicates that less than one-third of the sum was monetary assistance, while the rest was in the form of “material assistance.” All in all, if one were to evenly distribute that $1.3 billion over a quarter-century, it would mean that the church gave $52 million annually. A study co-written by Cragun and recently published in Free Inquiry estimates that the Mormon Church donates only about 0.7 percent of its annual income to charity; the United Methodist Church gives about 29 percent."
I mean generally I'm personally comfortable with churches receiving a tax exemption even just for "religious activities"/church operations, and I think in general most religious organizations are pretty diligent in their stewardship of donated funds (especially since the good financial practices movements in various denominations in the 80s and 90s, to clean up accounting and make it transparent and accountable to membership) and in trying to provide care for the needy in a variety of ways. But there are definitely religious organizations, and individuals within them, who abuse their tax status and their members' trust. (Which really isn't a surprise; that's true of any human endeavor.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:14 PM on November 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


JackFlash: So taxing churches directly, like any non-profit, is really non-productive because there is very little profit to tax.
Most of your comment makes sense, but this part is incorrect.

"Non-profit" is a convenient handle we use for 501c(3) (and related) charities, but the IRS doesn't actually use that term (AFAICT). "Not-for-profit" is more accurate. From their site:
The organization must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests, and no part of a section 501(c)(3) organization's net earnings may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual
How much such a charity "profits" is completely irrelevant. Who benefits from such a profit is what the IRS cares about.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:09 PM on November 16, 2012


IAmBroom, that IRS statement just means that a non-profit can't pay dividends to shareholders. A for-profit business is run to generate profits which are distributed to the shareholders or owners of the business. The IRS definitely uses the term non-profit.

I didn't mean to imply that non-profits can have no excess income, only that, in practice, most non-profits pretty much spend whatever they take in so taxing them isn't very fruitful. They don't accumulate large stashes of cash. They either distribute their income as an expense or else reinvest by buying stuff. Since there are no shareholders to pay, it is fairly easy to zero out profits so there isn't much in the way of profits to tax. If you have money left over, all you have to do is spend it on stocks, real estate, etc and you have no taxable profit.

On the other hand, all of their donations are tax deductible to the donor. That is a direct subsidy by tax payers. I don't mind tax deductible donations actually used for charitable work, but most of what churches spend money on is not charity. It is spent on rent or mortgages to build churches, heat and electricity, that fancy organ up front, salaries for staff, etc.

Here's an easy way to tell what is charity and what is not. Charity is something you do for the benefit of others. Going to church on Sunday is something you do for your own benefit -- whether is is spiritual, peace of mind, the fellowship of community, whatever your reason. Some people prefer mediation or yogi classes or going to the gym for their mental health, but they don't get tax deductions.

I disagree with Eyebrows McGee. I see no reason that my taxes should be used to pay for the building of churches, the staging of Sunday morning entertainment/morality plays or any other religious activities. They activities are for the benefit of the participant, not for charity and I shouldn't have to subsidize them.
posted by JackFlash at 1:58 PM on November 16, 2012


"I disagree with Eyebrows McGee. I see no reason that my taxes should be used to pay for the building of churches, the staging of Sunday morning entertainment/morality plays or any other religious activities. "

Which is a fair position, but (just to be clear) is not the current state of the law; nor is it the current dispute.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:51 PM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most bowling leagues don't have the threat of damning people to hell for not following their guidance to hold over their member's heads.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:12 AM on November 18, 2012


I'm not sure I understand that last point, but I don't consider your personal disagreement with others' beliefs about the afterllife to be a valid reason for changing either the law or the IRS's enforcement practices.
posted by Area Man at 11:03 AM on November 18, 2012


I'm not talking about changing any laws. I'm talking about traditional interpretations of law that date back to the founding of our nation. I never said I have a disagreement with anyone's beliefs about the afterlife, and in fact, until I'm dead and actually know what I'm talking about (instead of just passing along some nonsense a bunch of other non-dead people have said as God's own truth), I won't venture a guess.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:53 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]




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