Christianity Today's take on church-state tax relations

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Flaunting the regs: Pastor Mark Cowart
  • Flaunting political speech: Pastor Mark Cowart.

The popular magazine Christianity Today published an article a few days ago questioning the IRS' complete lack of action when it comes to churches violating IRS regulations.

We wrote about such violations a couple weeks back when some local evangelical pastors took part in the fifth Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a nationwide movement of pastors interrupting their regular Sunday sermons to their congregations to vote for Mitt Romney how to vote.

The strategy is to draw the IRS into a lengthy court proceedings, with the ultimate goal being to overturn the the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which banned certain nonprofits from engaging in partisan speech. The churches participating in the movement are aggressively challenging the law, some going so far as sending copies of their politics-laden sermons to the IRS.

The idea, explains Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with [Alliance Defending Freedom], is to push the issue into court. Then, he says, "We will have a test case, and we will seek to have the Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional."

Then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson introduced the amendment in 1954 to deal with what he thought was inappropriate campaigning by tax-exempt entities. But Stanley says it infringes on the First Amendment's guarantee to religious freedom.

"You don't get more to the core of religious freedom than a pastor preaching from the pulpit on a Sunday morning." Pulpit Freedom Sunday is less about the restriction on talking about candidates and elections, he says, than "the fact that there is a restriction on the pulpit at all. What we are trying to do is remove an unconstitutional restriction."

And the IRS has, so far, done nothing.

Christianity Today reports that though the IRS only recently announced a moratorium on church audits, Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund), says a moratorium has essentially been in effect since 2009.

An IRS official at the level of regional commissioner or above is required to approve any church audits before they are initiated, according to a law passed in 1984. But in 1996, Congress reorganized the IRS from geographical regions to national practice groups—a move that eliminated the office of regional commissioner.

"The IRS designated an official within [its] exempt organizations section to be the one to approve the church audits," Stanley said.

But that position did not rank high enough to be adequate, the court decided after a Minnesota church challenged the legitimacy of their audit in 2009.

"The IRS shut down all church audits at the time," Stanley said. The agency proposed new regulations in 2009, but never got past the review process, he said.

"After that, it has taken absolutely no action on finalizing the regulations," he said. "They've just been sitting out there."

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