Has the IRS Abandoned Enforcing Ban on Church Political Activity?Breaking News
tags: IRS, evangelicals, Church State Separation, Megachurches, Internal Revenue Service
Six days before a local runoff election last year in Frisco, a prosperous and growing suburb of Dallas, Brandon Burden paced the stage of KingdomLife Church. The pastor told congregants that demonic spirits were operating through members of the City Council.
Grasping his Bible with both hands, Burden said God was working through his North Texas congregation to take the country back to its Christian roots. He lamented that he lacked jurisdiction over the state Capitol, where he had gone during the 2021 Texas legislative session to lobby for conservative priorities like expanded gun rights and a ban on abortion.
“But you know what I got jurisdiction over this morning is an election coming up on Saturday,” Burden told parishioners. “I got a candidate that God wants to win. I got a mayor that God wants to unseat. God wants to undo. God wants to shift the balance of power in our city. And I have jurisdiction over that this morning.”
What Burden said that day in May 2021 was a violation of a long-standing federal law barring churches and nonprofits from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns, tax law experts told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. Although the provision was mostly uncontroversial for decades after it passed in 1954, it has become a target for both evangelical churches and former President Donald Trump, who vowed to eliminate it.
Burden’s sermon is among those at 18 churches identified by the news organizations over the past two years that appeared to violate the Johnson Amendment, a measure named after its author, former President Lyndon B. Johnson. Some pastors have gone so far as to paint candidates they oppose as demonic.
At one point, churches fretted over losing their tax-exempt status for even unintentional missteps. But 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.
Neither Burden nor KingdomLife responded to multiple interview requests or to emailed questions.
“If you pair the ability to wade into partisan politics with a total absence of financial oversight and transparency, you’re essentially creating super PACs that are black holes,” Seidel said.
Churches have long balanced the tightrope of political involvement, and blatant violations have previously been rare. In the 1960s, the IRS investigated complaints that some churches abused their tax-exempt status by distributing literature that was hostile to the election of John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic president. And in 2004, the federal agency audited All Saints Episcopal Church in California after a pastor gave an anti-war speech that imagined Jesus talking to presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. The pastor did not endorse a candidate but criticized the Iraq war.
Some conservative groups have argued that Black churches are more politically active than their white evangelical counterparts but are not as heavily scrutinized. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Rev. Jesse L. Jackson was accused of turning Sunday sermons into campaign rallies and using Black churches to raise funds. In response to allegations of illegal campaigning, Jackson said at the time that strict guidelines were followed and denied violating the law.
Questions about the political involvement of tax-exempt organizations were swirling when Congress ordered an investigation in April 1952 to determine if some foundations were using their money “for un-American and subversive activities.”
Leading the probe was Rep. Gene Cox, a Georgia Democrat who had accused the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, among others, of helping alleged Communists or Communist fronts. Cox died during the investigation, and the final report cleared the foundations of wrongdoing.
But a Republican member of the committee argued for additional scrutiny, and in July 1953, Congress established the House Committee to Investigate Tax-Exempt Foundations. The committee focused heavily on liberal organizations, but it also investigated nonprofits such as the Facts Forum foundation, which was headed by Texas oilman H.L. Hunt, an ardent supporter of then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, a Republican who was best known for holding hearings to investigate suspected Communists.
In July 1954, Johnson, who was then a senator, proposed an amendment to the U.S. tax code that would strip nonprofits of their tax-exempt status for “intervening” in political campaigns. The amendment sailed through Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Johnson never explained his intent. Opponents of the amendment, as well as some academics, say Johnson was motivated by a desire to undercut conservative foundations such as the National Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government, founded by newspaper magnate Frank Gannett, which painted the Democrat as soft on communism and supported his opponent in the primary election. Others have hypothesized that Johnson was hoping to head off a wider crackdown on nonprofit foundations.
Over the next 40 years, the IRS stripped a handful of religious nonprofits of their tax-exempt status. None were churches.
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