Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Mark W. Everson is well aware that some churches and other non-profits are abusing their tax-exempt status by intervening in partisan elections--and he has vowed to put a stop to it.
In remarks delivered before the City Club of Cleveland Feb. 24, Everson unveiled an ambitious new plan of enforcement in advance of the November elections designed to keep all tax-exempt groups in compliance with the law. Everson said he is confident the goal can be achieved without stepping on the free-speech rights of religious leaders.
"Freedom of speech and religious liberty are essential elements of our democracy," Everson said. "But the Supreme Court has in essence held that tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, stating, 'Congress has not violated [an organization's] First Amendment rights by declining to subsidize its First Amendment activities.'
"The rule against intervention by charities and churches in political campaigns has been entrenched in the law for over a half-century," he continued. "Congress enacted the law. The courts upheld it. Our job at the IRS is to educate the public and charities about the law and to enforce it in a fair and evenhanded manner."
According to Everson, nothing short of public confidence in churches is at stake.
"Are we going to let these political activities spread to our charities and churches?" Everson asked. "Now is the time to act, before it is too late."
The IRS head concluded, "Clearly political intervention by charities and churches is an area where the IRS must tread carefully. There are few bright lines for evaluating political intervention; our work requires a careful balancing of all the facts and circumstances. But I am convinced that we must act. We can't afford to have our charitable and religious institutions undermined by politics."
Everson's speech included a review of specific steps taken by the IRS during the 2004 elections to crack down on unlawful forms of politicking by churches and other non-profits that hold the 501(c)(3) designation. It also listed new steps the agency will implement this year.
"While the vast majority of charities, including churches, do not engage in politicking, to address what we saw as increasing political intervention in the 2004 cycle, the IRS adopted a two-pronged approach," Everson explained. "First, we expanded our educational efforts to remind section 501(c)(3) organizations--charities and churches--about the prohibition on political activities and the consequences of violating it.
"We spread this message every way we could: by press releases, speeches, workshops, IRS Nationwide Tax Forums, and even in a letter to seven national political parties," he continued. "Second, we created a dedicated enforcement program. Under this initiative, we moved quickly on specific, credible allegations of wrongdoing. We did all this in a balanced and even-handed manner. We examined organizations that appeared to be violating the rules against political intervention. We wanted to stop improper activity during--not after--the election cycle."
Two days before the Cleveland speech, the IRS issued a major report detailing the problem and outlining its plan to curb abuses. Observers say the report is a strong signal that the tax agency has adopted a "zero tolerance" policy toward pulpit-based electioneering.
Staffers at Americans United say it's especially interesting that Everson chose an Ohio venue to unveil the IRS crackdown. That state is home to an aggressive effort by a group of conservative pastors who, under the guise of a tax-exempt entity called the Ohio Restoration Project, are trying to build a church-based political machine with the goal of electing Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell as governor.
The pro-Blackwell effort, spearheaded by the Rev. Russell Johnson and the Rev. Rod Parsley, is so over …