Celebrate Pulpit Freedom Sunday by Calling for Politically Active Churches to Pay Taxes

Throughout history, masses of people developed governments and standardized rules to maintain order and protect citizens of a society from anarchy and lawlessness, and although there are exceptions, most reasonable human beings agree that without some degree of discipline and punitive action for lawbreakers, society would break down. In America, it is nearly impossible to imagine a criminal walking into a local police station armed with a machine gun and bank bag full of cash to inform the desk sergeant they had just committed armed robbery and dare law enforcement to arrest and prosecute them. As bizarre as that scenario sounds, there are a growing number of Americans who are robbing their fellow taxpayers, breaking the law, and daring an enforcement agency to prosecute them with impunity, and they are doing it under authority of Christian religious freedom with regularity and on a schedule. However, despite their god-book sensibilities, the law is the law, and in a nation of laws and equality, it is time to prosecute them with extreme prejudice to force them to abide by the law like every other American.

According to IRS rules for a 501(c)(3) charitable organization,  a church cannot act “on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office” without jeopardizing their church’s tax-exempt status. However, that rule does not stop Pastor Jim Garlow from standing before true believers at his Skyline Wesleyan Church in California on October 7 prior to the U.S. presidential and congressional elections to urge his flock to vote for, or against, particular candidates. Not only does Garlow anticipate breaking the law, he intends on recruiting many other preachers to join him in an exercise, Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which has been going on since 2008. Last year alone, 539 preachers joined Garlow in flaunting their blatant disregard for the law to force the issue before the courts as a freedom of religion and speech issue in what he calls “the next great awakening to see it just sweep across this nation.” How fitting that a Christian preacher is enlisting countless other religious leaders to break the law to demonstrate their disregard for the Constitution’s Separation of Church and State clause in the 1ST Amendment while they rob American taxpayers and their communities of desperately needed funds.

Because churches are exempt from filing financial statements with the IRS like every other tax-exempt non-profit, rough estimates are that combined federal tax breaks on donations to churches and exemptions from state and local property taxes most likely add up to approximately $25 billion in lost revenue each year. For example, in New York City, roughly 9,500 churches, temples, and mosques avoided paying over $626 million in property taxes this year because they operate as tax-free institutions, and as communities across the country are struggling financially and laying off teachers, police officers, firefighters, and maintenance workers (something Willard Romney approves of), it is a travesty that religious leaders like Garlow are thumbing their noses at the law that allows them to suck much-needed revenue from taxpayers and communities with impunity.

One might think, erroneously, that Christians would expect their leaders to follow the law and be grateful that they do not have to support their communities because they talk about god, but there is a feeling of entitlement under the guise of religious freedom that inspires them to drain $25 billion of taxpayer money and still campaign from the pulpit as if they are above the law. As an aside, when Jesus Christ was queried by Pharisees whether they should, or should not, pay taxes to Caesar (government), Christ responded “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar” (Mark 12:17), so it is sinful that Christian preachers proceed campaigning with flagrant disregard for the law after they are given a free pass on contributing to the government and communities with the condition they refrain from campaigning from the pulpit.

Although this Pulpit Freedom Sunday has been going on for three years, the event has taken on new dimensions with the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and particularly President Obama’s requirement that contraception be covered in health plans as part of regular health maintenance for women and families. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the religious right are at the forefront of a movement to impose their religious beliefs on all Americans through their political activism and influence with Republicans in Congress. According to Cardinal Francis George, “The first principle is that American citizens don’t lose their freedom of religion or their freedom of expression,” but as has been noted myriad times, religious freedom has come to mean forcing adherence to their religious dogmata on the entire country. The IRS rules do not restrict religious leaders from expressing or practicing their religion as they please, but it does restrict them from campaigning for political candidates from the pulpit.

One Catholic Bishop followed preacher Garlow’s lead in April when he gave a sermon that asserted President Obama, “with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda seemed to be on an anti-Catholic path similar to Hitler and Stalin,” and it inspired him to exhort “all Catholics to vote their Catholic consciences” this fall. It is the type of campaigning that is a violation of the 501(c)(3) charitable organization rules to maintain their taxpayer welfare, and the ingrates still thumb their noses at the simple requirement because their bastardized version of religious freedom supplants the law of the land.

This issue is not about religious freedom or liberty like Catholics, Christians, and Mormons claim, it is a civic issue and religious leaders like Garlow are shirking their civic duty to follow a simple requirement in order to leech taxpayer dollars and use law enforcement, fire protection, roads, and schools that American taxpayers fund. What is interesting and demonstrates the brazen attitude of many religious leaders was a Pew research study that discovered most parishioners preferred their religious leaders avoid electioneering; Catholics were the most adamant. As a former Christian minister, this author can attest that most religious adherents go to church for spiritual instruction and direction, and not to hear a campaign stump speech.

There are only two options available to stop men like Garlow and his ilk from breaking the law; either the IRS strip their tax-exempt status forthwith, or end taxpayer welfare to religious organizations altogether. There is no reason for any church, preacher, bishop, priest, or religion to avoid paying the same property, state or federal taxes like every other American. There are even special rules the IRS has to follow to audit or investigate a church’s finances, and yet any taxpayer is subject to a thorough IRS audit for any reason. Why do religious organizations merit special treatment? They provide nothing to their communities that taxpayers like community volunteers, school teachers, police officers, or firefighters provide every day without special tax exemptions. It is time to end this sick, twisted obeisance to religion in America and get on with the business of a nation of laws that are equally enforced, because at the rate the country is proceeding toward rule by religious edict, it will not be long before the Constitution is replaced with a Christian bible or a book of Mormon, and the law of the land will be meted out by a religious fanatic. The 21st century Crusade is under way and no thinking human being would have thought it would begin in what is rapidly becoming a Theocratic Republic of America by men who are above the law, the Constitution, and the government as if they are god.

19 Replies to “Celebrate Pulpit Freedom Sunday by Calling for Politically Active Churches to Pay Taxes”

  1. i’m for revoking all tax exempt status for all r ‘religions’ that includes them not paying property taxes on their golden palaces, and the huge sums some churches raise just to let their leaders fly in private jets, and have huge mansions. [see texas and orange county,ca mega church’s].

    or i will become my own religion and stop paying taxes…. come join my church of the heretic.

  2. OK – let’s take this from the top. Yes, churches like ALL non-profits are forbidden from using their tax-deductible contributions for political actions up to 5% of their income. They are forbidden entirely from doing ANY partisan advocacy. Churches, unlike the ACLU and secular non-profits, may not take the “h election” giving them greater latitude on non-partisan advocacy.

    Progressive churches obey this law. They do NOT engage in any partisan action, and they generally spend nothing at all on NON partisan issues, leaving that to groups that are legally entitled to do this and that are 501-c-4. These do not receive donations that are tax deductible. Both c-3s and c-4s do not PAY taxes, secular or faith grounded, but c-3s are required to file 990s with the IRS if they have over a certain amount of money.

    It is only progressive and liberal churches, synagogues, and mosques etc. that have been pressured and investigated in the past administration. But they have been found in compliance. The conservative churches NEED to be investigated and when in fault, yes, their c-3 status as non tax PAYING and recipients of tax deductible income removed. This DID happen to the Christian Coalition – it lost its tax exempt status back in the 1990s.

    The laws are fine. They need to be enforced. You can help by filing complaints. The IRS would have little way to know what churches are failing to comply without citizen help.

    One caveat – calling for ALL churches to be taxed is a recipe for preserving ONLY the huge conservative ones. They could withstand the burden. Smaller progressive and liberal ones would die on the vine. It would also cut out all the charitable work – soup kitchens, food pantries, health ministries – that churches do which are growing in importance with state and federal budget cuts. It would also silence their voices on the legal non-partisan advocacy they do for progressive causes.

    So be careful – not all churches are the same, and those complying with the law are generally your allies on every issue from peace to civil rights. The laws are in place. Use them, and do so wisely.

  3. Hitler *was* a Catholic, and he prohibited birth control and abortion for ril Aryuns, even as he mandated abortion and infanticide for anyone who wasn’t.

  4. Muse did say politically active churches though there is something to be said for all churches, I think. After all, though I’m not one myself, do atheists get tax relief for non-belief?

    At the same time, I agree with you, Church Lady, that a great part of our problem is that existing laws are not enforced and this is true in many areas today, from Wall Street on down.

    Unfortunately, it is a problem I don’t see being addressed; even progressive Christian Obama added to Bush’s unconstitutional Faith Based Initiative rather than disbanding it.

  5. Churchlady, did you not read that these freaks are taunting the IRS into a court battle? They send the IRS DVDs of their sermons and blatant instructions to vote, or not vote, for specific candidates, but as noted in the article, there are quite specific and special rules to audit or investigate a church for non-compliance. You, on the other hand, or I, can be audited if an IRS employee doesn’t like the font or ink-color of your tax return.

  6. Are you going to do that to ALL non-profits? They don’t make profits in the smaller progressive churches. This is the simplistic thinking that does not consider the consequences at ALL of throwing your allies under the bus. There are laws governing both religious and secular non-profits. Use the laws, punish those who break them, but stop insisting that little church on the corner that serves the needy, welcomes GLBT people, and obeys the laws is equal to the megachurches and brimming with wealth untold.

    It should not be the province of progressives to be as thoughtless as Baggers.

  7. Not true, Hraf. This office of faith based and community initiatives no longer funds ANY organization that uses the money in sectarian ways or to proselytize. HUGE difference. That is the root of the contraception issue. Churches don’t have to have it included. But any organization that accepts tax dollars must because it puts them inside the civil rights laws of equal accommodation. They have to honor their NON religious employees and their individual rights. Nothing wrong with funding faith groups that use the money to promote community development, health access, or any other issue of DEMOCRACY. They must do so without any discrimination and without a shred of evangelizing. Bush funded overtly religious groups, no matter WHAT they did. Obama is NOT. He made that totally explicit in January 2009 and has carried on that focus ever since.

  8. Sorry – there are no special rules for investigating churches in non-compliance. Churches can be considered non-profits without incorporation, but they are assumed to BE 501-c-3 status and must meet the standards of Sarbanes-Oxley that govern ALL non-profits. There are no special rules for them. NONE. The problem as in all investigations is the lack of IRS person power to pursue the inquiry. We as individuals do come first, and the poor come at the head of the line on EITC – that’s disgusting. But if there is an overt complaint filed, the IRS WILL investigate. Without a complaint, they won’t even know.

    Sure these Dominionists are challenging the law. This SCOTUS has made some despicable pro-religious-discrimination legal rulings that the dissenting justices were aghast to see. That is one reason the IRS might NOT take it up until after the election when we might get a Court that actually honors the laws. The laws are clear. This Court is NOT.

  9. BTW – forgot to say, of COURSE atheists and agnostics get tax relief for non-belief. Dozens if not hundreds of organizations from the Center for Free Inquiry to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State all have both c-3 and c-4 tax exemptions. These promote the rights of non-believers on exactly the same status as churches except for ONE thing: churches have NO right to the ‘h election’ giving the c-3 more right to advocate under their c-3. ONLY atheists, non-believers and others such as the ACLU that are organized as regular c-3s have that right. So yes – you have the same rights and MORE than do churches. And that’s fine.

  10. And your point? Holding up Hitler as some evidence of “religous depravity” is just over the top. You’d kinda have to come to terms with CAtholic priest Angelo Roncalli (Pope John XXIII) risking his life time and again to save Jews. He was scarcely the only one. Religion can be a force for universalism, world peace, humanity – or it can be twisted, perverted, and vile. Sort of like anything else.

  11. You have a point. Its easy to bash the Catholic church for being the weird insane religion it is, yet forget someone the very good things they do around the world. 50-50

  12. For the IRS to investigate a religious non-profit or the clergy (with or without incorporation) it takes direct authorization from a “high-level IRS or Treasury Department official to authorize the audit,” and “an IRS official closed a 2008 examination of a church because of a pending issue regarding the procedure used to initiate the inquiry.” As a tax professional who handles IRS filings for churches and clergy, and reported malfeasance as an agent, I have witnessed this and attest it to be true. However, believe what you will.

  13. There is no apparent reason to give ANY religious organization tax-exempt status. Their charity work, gifts to the poor and infirm, like mine or hundreds-of-thousands of other volunteers, should be “free” like your lord and savior Jesus Christ admonished. Unless there is another Jesus Christ seminary omitted from my studies.

  14. This is your opinion, not based on facts. Churches don’t ALL believe in “our lord and savior Jesus Christ” and seek personal salvation. They follow teachings, and they give their money for good JUST AS SECULAR ORGANIZATIONS DO. There is no profit. No profit, tax exemptions and tax deductibility for donations. You cannot tax those organizations, faith or secular, that MAKE NO PROFIT. What IS your problem that you think it’s OK for the ACLU and not for the faith organizations that SUPPPORT what the ACLU does? Your view of religions is oddly your own and not consistent with fact.

    Go ahead with your little project to rip tax exempt status from your allies and see how well you do with progressive actions. You don’t even bother to find out what the differences ARE or how much progressive and liberal faith groups do the right things AND do so within the law.

  15. Rmuse – it can begin with a citizen complaint. All audits require authorization. Get over it. Most people are afraid to call out those doing illegal things. We know one very conservative group in CA is doing political things on c-3 money. No one has the nerve – including me – to report them. Fear of disclosure and lawsuits is a real deterrent. But once the complaint IS lodged, it can proceed. This is not that difficult.Just ask liberal All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, CA – the complaint came from someone who lived in another state based on a NEWS story, and the investigation moved on.

  16. If churches make no profit, why is the mormon church and the catholic church so fantastically wealthy? How can the catholics pay so many millions to abused kids? Churches are for profit entities disguised as non profits

  17. Because, sigh, the money is for the work of the church NOT in private hands. Please understand the laws and ALSO the nature of denominations.

    Then understand that those two churches are global in size and not just your local corner UCC congregation struggling to survive. Drive around. How many huge edifices do you see? Few. The Pentecostal, Evangelical, Catholic, and Mormon churches of enormous size are fewer in number than the dozens, hundreds, thousands of small but dedicated congregations that are mostly Protestant. The Mormons and Catholics obeyed the laws – they did NOT spend more than 5% of their money on advocacy which is the limit. They just have HUGE amounts TO spend. You don’t have to like it. It happens to be the law for non-profits. So long as there are no shareholder distributions, and the money goes for some kind of public good, they are non-profit.

    Rmuse posits faith groups should do this for free. Cool, but we don’t live in a tribal society wandering the desert. So long as we have bricks and mortar as the location for FREE health clinics, soup kitches, food pantries, recreation for disaffected youth, etc., and so long as we live in a 21st century society, faith groups as non-profits ARE NO DIFFERENT FROM any other NON PROFIT. WE have married clergy who need support. We have programs that need support. We don’t pocket the money but use it to advance justice and equity. Protestants for the most part are not in this for the money – again, the reason they are non-profit.

    If you remember the scandal of United Way when the national CEO was taking in nearly $500,000 plus perks annually, the IRS DID move in and stopped that. There are rules about uses of tax-deductible money, and enriching your staff is a no-no. That’s why someone like Franklin Graham hides his compensation (you can see his 990 – he lives off TAX money for relief work overseas and his record is appalling and MUST be investigated.) You can look at any local church, and it’s night and day. Progressives largely do NOT get paid well relatively speaking. Again – abiding by the law and not lining one’s own pocket.

    So unless and until you’re willing to challenge the non-profit status of Progressive American, Common Cause, ACLU, Center for Free Inquiry – don’t challenge JUST churches on these issues. Go after the ones that violate the law. And live with the fact that some just have a boatload of money, current and historic, the rest of us don’t.

  18. If they are breaking the laws dealing with non-profit status then yes they should lose tax exempt status for at least a minimum of 7 years. Then they will have to re-apply for said status and agree to be monitored for compliance. This might should apply only to the individual churches rather than full denomination as some churches might be doing the right thing even if others of the same denomination are not.
    If they are indeed sending the IRS videos of those sermons and a case could be made on the basis of those tapes then the church should be investigated without the need for someone to get the courage up to go against their religious leaders.
    I have to go along with the idea that if the church is operating a business that hires non-members they have to respect the beliefs of those employees granting them insurance that pays for contraceptives if that be the course they choose. They can mandate what their members may and may not do but they cannot mandate non-members values and lives.

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