Dragging Churches into Partisan Politics

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-basedĀ Free Market Foundation Focus on the Family-Texas (which got $100,000 from Niemoller to help organize the pastor “briefings” in 2005) — isĀ 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.

4 thoughts on “Dragging Churches into Partisan Politics

  1. TFN.

    Take a look at Randall Balmer’s book “Thy Kingdom Come.” If you do not have a copy, you need to rush down to the bookstore and buy one. I suppose everything has an ignition point—even the big bang. The original ignition point for the religious right as a movement was not abortion, marriage protection, or any other such issue. It was tax exemption for a religious institution. It all goes back to the point where Jimmy Carter tried to take away the religious tax exemption for Bob Jones University. It is all laid out in the book. Being a Christian myself, I always find it amusing that moral issues are just the thin outer shell of the Religious Right’s M & M candy. Get past that and you realize that money is their primary concern above all else. World go round. World go round.

    I think the IRS knows this. I think the Religious Right knows this. If the IRS were to really start cracking down on political churches and actually take away their tax exempt status, the cry of outrage and sense of persecution (with regard to what really matters most—money) would be deafening. The IRS does not want to risk ever rocking that boat after the trouble they had with Congress about 15 years ago.

    My analysis: The IRS responsibility over tax exemption and political churches is a “pure sham” that they have no intention of ever really enforcing exempt for an occasional weak or helpless church here or there just to keep a plausible mask on the sham. The political risks are too great for the IRS to accept.

  2. Given the implications of this IRS decision, and past trends, I would be worried about the electoral processes for the fifteen districts for the Texas SBOE, the impact on public education in Texas, and, of course, redistricting in 2011. It would be nice if there was the political will to support IRS in removing tax-exempt status from churches that engage in partisan political activity. For myself, I would like to see tax-exempt status removed from all churches and religions, regardless of their political leanings. I’m just worried about the impact this has on critical elections and redistricting.

  3. Abortion and gay marriage are key “manipulation points” that the power structure of the religious right uses to motivate their gullible foot soldiers in the Culture Wars. Sure, the folks in charge like to get out the vote; they love being power players in the Republican Party.

    But mostly, they like to get out the moolah . . . get it out of their followers’ pockets and into put it into their own. Dobson, those faux scientists at the Discovery Institute, Robertson, the faux scholars at Liberty University — they’re all making a lavish living through chicanery, while doing zero real work. Whenever the coffers look a little bare, they drum up some more fake outrage on Faux Noise and bestir themselves to send out a fundraising letter.

    They’re nothing but Billy Sunday writ large. If their vast horde of ill-educated bluecollar minions ever gets a clue, these charlatans might have to actually work for a living. Alas, there will always be suckers ready to shell out at the behest of a con artist carrying a Bible.