The Source: Politicking Churches Rarely Run Into Trouble

Nov 17, 2015

A recent ruling by the 5th circuit court of appeals ruled that under Texas election law, churches could participate and coordinate in recall elections. Three churches--In Houston, Joint Heirs Fellowship Church and Houston's First Church of God as well as Faith Outreach International Center here in San Antonio--had sued the Texas Ethics Commission to engage in recall elections of city politicians who had advocated for including protections for the LGBT community to their city's nondiscrimination policies. 

Churches in the country have been barred from endorsing and advocating for candidates since the Johnson Administration under federal tax law. This separation has rarely been enforced by our federal tax collectors though. According to Lloyd Mayer, professor of law at Notre Dame it isn't likely that anyone from the IRS is going to come knocking on the door of a politicking church.

"To date the IRS has been very reluctant to go after churches and nonreligious charities  involved in politics in part because of the Tea Party controversy that they are still recovering from," says Mayer, referring to the allegations that the IRS was giving increased scrutiny to conservative groups applying for social welfare nonprofits tax exemption. 

Mayer says that only 3 churches in the last year were audited. This is despite the fact that 1800 churches took place in Pulpit Freedom Sunday last year, a movement that tries to challenge the IRS' Johnson Amendment and expand the politicking that a church can do by actively endorsing candidates and soliciting politicians to come and speak on a given Sunday. 

Marc Owens, former head of the IRS' Exempt Organizations Division, highlights the many court cases that have restricted the IRS when it comes to auditing churches as one reason they have let churches slide.

"I think the IRS is very wary of finding itself back in court again on that same issue."

Should we worry about the future of politicking churches? 

Guests:

  • Marc Owens, partner at Loeb and Loeb and former director of the Internal Revenue Service's Exempt Organizations Division
  • Lloyd Mayer, professor of law at Notre Dame University