The Internal Revenue Service has ruled against a complaint filed by the Texas Freedom Network asking whether a tax-exempt, nonprofit foundation improperly sought to mobilize conservative pastors for partisan electoral purposes beginning in 2005. In January 2008 we asked the IRS to investigate whether the Houston-based Niemoller Foundation improperly engaged in partisan political activity on behalf of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s re-election in 2006. You can read our press release at the time here and supporting documents here.
The focus of the complaint was Niemoller’s funding of six “Pastors’ Policy Briefings”in 2005 (and a seventh to celebrate the governor’s inauguration in January 2007) hosted by an entity called the Texas Restoration Project. (You can read about the Texas Restoration Project in a TFN Education Fund report here, pages 13-16. ) We also asked whether Niemoller had improperly helped distribute political propaganda in support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a measure Texas voters approved in 2005.
At a cost of well over $1 million — costs covered almost entirely by Niemoller — the Texas Restoration Project briefings attracted thousands of pastors and their spouses to hear speeches by Gov. Perry as well as conservative evangelicals and government officials who lined up to praise him. In fact, the governor was the sole gubernatorial candidate invited to speak, and all of Niemoller’s money for the briefings came from prominent Perry campaign donors. Clergy at the events were encouraged to mobilize voters in their congregations. Then the week before the November 2006 general election, Texas Restoration Project supporters of Gov. Perry encouraged pastors in a statewide conference call to get members of their congregations to the polls.
Even so, in a letter dated May 4 of this year, the IRS noted that its investigation didn’t reveal sufficient evidence for revoking Niemoller’s tax-exempt status. We disagree with the letter’s conclusions, but we accept the IRS ruling for now. An unfortunate consequence of that ruling, however, is that wealthy special interests are likely to be encouraged to funnel more money into nonprofits that seek to drag churches and other houses of worship into partisan political campaigns.
Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute — the litigation arm of Plano-based Free Market Foundation Focus on the Family-Texas (which got $100,000 from Niemoller to help organize the pastor “briefings” in 2005) — is crowing about the IRS decision:
This liberal attempt to intimidate pastors has backfired. Not only do pastors and churches have freedom, but now they know about it.
In fact, however, TFN never challenged the right of pastors to speak out on moral and political issues of the day. Everyone has that right, including pastors. Our complaint focused on whether Niemoller violated its tax-exempt status by funding events that clearly appeared to be for the benefit of electing a particular gubernatorial candidate. Shackelford’s group, however, has long sought to weaken legal restrictions on the ability of churches to engage in partisan political activity. Regardless of the IRS decision regarding Niemoller, churches still risk losing their tax-exempt status if they intervene in elections on behalf of candidates for elective office.
We will continue to monitor the activities of Niemoller and the Texas Restoration Project. And we will continue to expose and oppose efforts to drag houses of worship into partisan campaigns and use faith as a political weapon to divide voters.