Atheists Say IRS Not Doing Enough to Hold Churches Accountable

WASHINGTON, DC—The Secular Coalition for America today sent a letter to the White House, pointing out additional Internal Revenue Service failings, including neglecting to investigate churches and religious charities that engage in “politicking from the pulpit.”

In its letter, the Secular Coalition said “religious charities have been flaunting their flagrant disregard for [IRS] laws for years. Over 1600 pastors participated in last year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday, where pastors not only violated the law by lobbying and endorsing candidates, but filmed their illegal actions and mailed them to the IRS.”

The Secular Coalition’s letter comes on the heel of another letter sent to the White House by Franklin Graham earlier this week, asserting that the IRS is improperly targeting religious charities for investigation, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Graham’s complaint is one in a series of allegations this week that the IRS is unfairly targeting churches for scrutiny.

“Churches and religious organizations are being singled out—for special treatment,” said Edwina Rogers, executive director for the Secular Coalition for America. “Churches and other religious organizations have been using their tax exempt statuses for years to politick from the pulpit are rarely even investigated for their flagrant disregard of IRS law.”

In fact, churches are heavily insulated against general procedures and investigations that other secular non-profits are subject to. The Church Audit Procedures Act, §7611 of the Internal Revenue Code, stipulates that only “an appropriate high-level Treasury official” can initiate an investigation, if there is suspicion that the church is incompliant with 501(c)(3) requirements. The Act defines “appropriate high-level Treasury official” as “the Secretary of the Treasury or any delegate of the Secretary of the Treasury whose rank is no lower than that of a principal Internal Revenue officer for an internal revenue region.”

In October 2012, despite an influx of complaints to the IRS regarding churches that had become too political, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officially halted tax audits of churches until it can adopt rules that clarify which high-level employee has the authority to initiate them, resulting in outright non-enforcement of electioneering restrictions.

Under current 501(c)(3) law, churches are barred from electioneering and limited in other political activity. Specifically, the anti-electioneering provision prohibits any section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization from endorsing or opposing any candidate for public office. Churches are allowed to engage only in “insubstantial” lobbying, spending no more than 20 percent of the church’s budget on lobbying—a restriction nearly impossible to uphold since churches are not required to submit 990 forms indicating their income or expenditures.

“Not only are churches shielded from basic investigations in a way that no other non-profits are, but the laws that are in place for them are nearly impossible to uphold,” Rogers said. “Because churches do not have to submit a 990 form how then can the IRS hold them accountable for breaking other IRS laws that limit the amount the amount of political lobbying they do?” 

Secular 501(c)(3) organizations that surpass the 20 percent cap on lobbying or electioneer in any way are in jeopardy of losing their tax exempt, and investigations and can be initiated by low-level IRS officials.

To address concerns of religious privileging in the tax code, , the Secular Coalition has urged Congress to require religious nonprofits to submit 990 forms like other nonprofit organizations, and to enforce the largely ignored current IRS rules that bar churches from endorsing political candidates.

Earlier this month, the Joint Committee on Taxation for included the Coalition’s recommendations on removing religious privileging from the tax code, in a report submitted May 7, 2013 to the House Ways and Means Committee. The Secular Coalition is now urging the House Ways and Means committee to adopt the SCA’s recommendations in the final bill the Committee puts forth to the full House.

The Secular Coalition for America represents atheists, agnostics, humanists and others who don’t possess and absolutely belief in God on Capitol Hill. The Secular Coalition lobbies to protect and strengthen the secular character of the government as the best guarantee of freedom for all. The Coalition is comprised of 11 member organizations and 118 endorsing organizations. The Secular Coalition has chapters in all 50 states that lobby lawmakers at the state level.

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