ADF Plans to Challenge Ban on Political Activity By Tax-Exempt Churches

The Alliance Defense Fund’s next shit-stirring operation is to have multiple churches and pastors give explicitly political sermons to provoke a lawsuit. I foresee Rule 11 sanctions and bar discipline for the lawyers involved in this hare-brained scheme.

Declaring that clergy have a constitutional right to endorse political candidates from their pulpits, the socially conservative Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting several dozen pastors to do just that on Sept. 28, in defiance of Internal Revenue Service rules.The effort by the Arizona-based legal consortium is designed to trigger an IRS investigation that ADF lawyers would then challenge in federal court. The ultimate goal is to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship.

“For so long, there has been this cloud of intimidation over the church,” ADF attorney Erik Stanley said. “It is the job of the pastors of America to debate the proper role of church in society. It’s not for the government to mandate the role of church in society.”

This is, in a word, stupid. Of course clergy have a constitutional right to endorse political candidates from their pulpits. They can endorse ’til they are blue in the face. They are free to hold bake sales and raffles to raise money for political advocacy, if that’s what they want to do. No one is stopping them.

But take heed: no one has a right to tax-exempt status. If churches want the benefits that come from being 501(c)(3)-eligible, they must behave according to rules established by Congress and the IRS. Among other things, they must not devote a substantial part of their activities to attempting to influence legislation and they must not participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.

The ADF claims that the purpose of these restrictions is to silence churches and prevent religion from influencing public policy. That is simply untrue. The point is that churches should not have to worry about things like taxes. We also want contributions to churches to be tax-deductible (in order to encourage such contributions).

But we don’t want contributions to political advocacy to be tax-deductible. In effect, by allowing churches to participate in political campaigns, the ADF wants to create a method of making tax-deductible contributions to political campaigns. This is a form of political money-laundering and it results in too much entanglement between churches and our government.

Now, I’m certain the ADF knows this, which is why my first thought was sanctions and discipline when I read the article. These lawyers are on thin ice. Most bar associations have rules to the effect that a lawyer shall not counsel or assist a client in engaging in criminal or fraudulent conduct. Now, a church engaging in political activity is not a crime or fraud. But inducing a client to engage in frivolous litigation may be. These people should know better.

Exit question: Why is it the two or three most vocal Christian-advocacy organizations in this country have to be so embarrassing?

~ by Gabriel Malor on September 8, 2008.

6 Responses to “ADF Plans to Challenge Ban on Political Activity By Tax-Exempt Churches”

  1. Gabe, here’s an interesting postulate for you: Do churches have to file as 501(c)(3) Corporations in order to claim tax-exempt status?

    Last I checked in my reading of Federal law (and I’m no expert, of course), religious institutions were granted that status de facto; that the 501 designation is more of an optional formality.

    Love to hear your take on it, as always!


  2. No, they don’t have to file. They are tax-exempt merely by being 501(c)(3)-eligible. However, to keep that tax-exempt status, whether they’ve filed or not, they must not engage in certain activities.

  3. You have a statute on that, by any chance? Certainly, anyone who goes through the motions of being 501(c)(3) agrees to abide by the clauses contained within, one of which relates to forbidding overt political activity. I’ve always been under the impression that 501(c)(3) ONLY applies to churches and other organizations that file under that provision of the law, but churches themselves are not REQUIRED to file income taxes otherwise.

    So what about the groups that fall outside of that definition? Is there another statute that prohibits them from “doing” politics?


  4. 26 USC 501 lays out the exceptions, including for organizations other than churches. IRS Pub. 1828 explains it, but doesn’t have cites to the statute.

    Click to access p1828.pdf

    From a glance reading of the statute, I’d say churches don’t have to actually file to receive the benefit, but are still held to the requirements because of 26 USC 501(h).

  5. I don’t think (h) applies here. 503(h)(5)(A) specifically excludes “churches” from electing into 501(h) provisions.

    Of course, with Internal Revenue Code being so monkeyfied as it is, I guess asking: “IN which statute does the Internal Revenue Service get the right to collect taxes on churches from?” would be too much to ask for, eh? šŸ™‚

    Ah, the joys of trying to make sense of U.S. Code.


  6. On the giving side:

    Individuals don’t need 501(c)(3) status to get a tax write-off on their donations to churches: So long as the amount donated does not exceed 50% of your annual income, 170(b)(1)(A)(i) grants 100% tax deduction on these types of donations.

    (It’s like walking through a maze. Backwards. With a blindfold on.)


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