Advocates of pulpit partisanship occasionally make the claim that the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t really enforce the “no-electioneering” provision of federal tax law or that it has little interest in doing so. They are wrong.
The IRS takes the law seriously and does enforce it. In fact, the IRS has established a special project focused just on this issue. One church had its tax exemption revoked for intervening in an election, and others have been sanctioned in other ways. Examples include:
- Church at Pierce Creek, Binghamton, N.Y.: This church lost its tax-exempt status after running newspaper ads in 1992 urging people not to vote for Bill Clinton. Assisted by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, the church sued to get its exemption back but lost in court.
- Christian Broadcasting Nework, Virginia Beach, Va.: TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network was stripped of its tax-exempt status retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987 for supporting Robertson’s presidential bid. CBN was required to make a “significant payment” to the IRS, pledge to avoid partisan campaign activities in the future, place more outside directors on its board and implement other organizational and operational changes to ensure tax law compliance.
- Old Time Gospel Hour, Lynchburg, Va.: The late Jerry Falwell’s TV ministry lost its tax-exempt status retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987 after a four-year IRS audit determined that the ministry had diverted money to a political action committee. The ministry agreed to pay the IRS $50,000 for those years and to change its organizational structure so that no future political campaign intervention activities would occur.
- Second Baptist Church, Houston: This prominent Texas church had to undergo a lengthy IRS audit after the church was reported to the federal tax agency for alleged involvement with a special project designed to encourage members to attend a GOP precinct convention with the aim of electing certain individuals to local committees. Attorneys for the church say the IRS cleared the congregation of wrong-doing, but only after a three-year audit.
- Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, New York City: This church was visited by IRS agents and its pastor, the Rev. Floyd Flake, was asked to sign documents stating that he would not intervene in election campaigns after he endorsed presidential candidate Al Gore from the pulpit in 2000.
In recent years, the IRS has announced plans to step up its enforcement of the “no-electioneering” rule, assigning career IRS agents to oversee a new project called the Political Activity Compliance Initiative (PACI). Announced in 2004, PACI seeks to ensure compliance with the law and expedite the investigative process.
This initiative has had results. In 2006, for example, the IRS reports that it investigated allegations of partisan political involvement by 46 churches and other religious organizations. Forty-two were found to have violated the law and issued written warnings. Furthermore, the IRS has announced that in 2006 it followed up on the organizations that were issued warnings to make certain none had violated the law again.
The IRS continues to maintain its PACI program. This special initiative includes a component to educate houses of worship about the requirements of the law, special scrutiny of “voter guides” that may cross the line into candidate advocacy and a look at how tax-exempt groups are using the web to address election-related issues.
It’s also important to remember that many of the cases where churches are sanctioned are never reported in the media and thus do not come to the attention of the public. This does not mean, however, that the IRS does not enforce the law. Clearly it does.