Magazine article The Christian Century

Murky Mandate

Magazine article The Christian Century

Murky Mandate

Article excerpt

Part of local lore at the CHRISTIAN CENTURY is a tale about the time our predecessors, unable to contain their dread of seeing Barry Goldwater in the White House, published an editorial endorsing Lyndon B. Johnson for president. This bit of electioneering was brought to the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, which proceeded to suspend the magazine's tax-exempt status for two years. The editorial clearly violated the IRS rule that prohibits charitable organizations (referred to as Section 501(c)(3) organizations in the tax code) from backing a political candidate.

The rules are much less clear when it comes to "social welfare" organizations (known to the IRS as Section 501(c)(4) organizations). Unlike charitable organizations, these groups are allowed to engage in politics while maintaining their tax-exempt status, as long as polities is not their primary activity.

But how much political activity is too much? And how is political activity to be defined? Is it right that a group can spend millions of dollars to influence an election and still be deemed a "social welfare" organization? Is it right that such groups, as part of their status as social welfare organizations, are permitted to shield the names of their donors?

These are the real questions that lie behind the furor over the IRS's practice-at least for a short time, at one office--of giving special scrutiny to conservative Tea Party and "patriot" groups that applied for 501(c)(4) status. …

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