Churches and the IRS

The right to freedom of religion is so central to American democracy that it was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution along with other fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

In order to guarantee an atmosphere of absolute religious liberty, this country’s founders also mandated the strict separation of church and state. Largely because of this, diverse faiths have flourished in America since the founding of the republic.

Congress begn banning political campaign activity by churches and charities more than a half century ago in a 1954 amendment to the Internal Revenue Code by then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson. As recently as 1987, it amended the language to clarify the prohibition also applied to statements that oppose candidates.

The IRS has become more aggressive about enforcing the law in the last couple of election cycles because more tax-exempt groups have been getting involved in politics …

Under the law, churches can hold voter-registration drives, prepare and distribute election guides, or even hold a nonpartisan candidate forum. They can also take positions on public-policy issues, including those that divide candidates in an election – so long as they stop short of approving or disapproving an individual candidate or issue. And a minister can be politically active as long as it is clear he or she is speaking as a private citizen.

Freedom is not free. Should a church and/or minister not be in compliance, the risk is losing its tax-exempt status. The government can’t demand that a church give up its right to tax-exempt status simply because the pastor exercises his First Amendment rights in the pulpit. Many local churches, on the other hand, go to great lengths to avoid risking their tax-exempt status, and yet some are blatant violators.

Churches and ministers need to be careful in this realm – certainly not endorsing candidates or giving the idea that we endorse a particular candidate and/or issue. Faith communities and faith leaders have a responsibility to help frame the questions and raise concerns, based on their faith understandings.

Many so-called churches within our community have recently acted as lobbying agents on the Wet/Dry issue. Just beware the federal government is cash hungry. So don’t be alarmed if many of these non-taxed individuals and communities that have stepped into the limelight suddenly, retroactively fall into the IRS tax code, just as any individual, business, and/or lobbyist.

If God disappears from the public square, our capacity to recognize the natural order, purpose, and the “good” begins to disappear. Being of the people is not just a sociological datum; it is a theological datum that has to do with the Church’s relationship to the world. And it is precisely from the development of this dimension that the new generation can be born. A rebirth with more conscious and integrated use of Church social teaching.

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Frank Nette