The midterm election is over, but the controversy over some of the politicking certainly isn’t.
In unprecedented numbers, churches’ leaders got involved in individual races, recommending choices to congregants. Some even passed out sample ballots with the suggested candidates’ names highlighted.
The problem with that is that it’s a violation of federal law, which forbids tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for office or using church money to help candidates. They risk losing their 501(c)(3) status that allows them to avoid paying taxes and lets donors deduct contributions from their taxable income.
In many, if not most, cases the endorsements weren’t cases of the church leaders not understanding the law. They were deliberate acts, part of an organized campaign daring the Internal Revenue Service to take action. Some participants even sent tapes of sermons to the IRS.
The movement — Pulpit Freedom Sunday, sponsored by the Alliance Defending Freedom — once involved a handful of ministers but now claims to have grown to more than 1,600 over the past six years.
So far no action has been taken against the churches involved, and the IRS has not revealed whether it plans to take any. Some speculate that the agency could be gun-shy after getting heat for cracking down on conservative tax-exempt organizations for similar candidate endorsements.
That shouldn’t be the case. Certainly the IRS could find some cases on both ends of the political spectrum. Or it could start with churches whose leaders sent evidence of blatantly violating the tax law. A few strategic prosecutions — and loss of tax-exempt status — might help nip this growing problem in the bud.
If the law isn’t enforced, why even have it on the books? What harm is there in allowing churches to be involved in politics?
The fact is, they can be — to a great extent. They’re not prohibited from preaching against abortion or for same-sex marriage, for instance; they just can’t get involved in individual campaigns for office.
If that were to become a widespread practice, churches could evolve into tax-free arms of political parties, with campaign donors able to funnel donations through houses of worship and deducting them from their federal income taxes.
Billions are being spent on campaigns today. Society has nothing to gain by allowing those billions to become tax-deductible, which could happen if churches became the pass-through agents for campaign donations. At that point they would become little more than money launderers for those seeking to influence elections.
Yes, this is a can of worms for the IRS. But it can’t be allowed to go unchallenged.