NEW YORK For the past three years, the Internal Revenue Service
hasnt been investigating complaints of partisan political activity
by churches, leaving religious groups that make direct or thinly
veiled endorsements of political candidates unchallenged.
The IRS monitors religious and other nonprofit groups on
everything from salaries to spending, and that oversight continues.
However, Russell Renwicks, a manager in the IRS Mid-Atlantic region,
recently said the agency had suspended audits of churches suspected
of breaching federal restrictions on political activity. A 2009
federal court ruling required the IRS to clarify which high-ranking
official could authorize audits over the tax codes political rules.
The IRS has yet to do so.
Dean Patterson, an IRS spokesman in Washington, said Renwicks,
who examines large tax-exempt groups, misspoke. Patterson would not
provide any specifics beyond saying that the IRS continues to run a
balanced program that follows up on potential noncompliance.
However, attorneys who specialize in tax law for religious
groups, as well as advocacy groups who monitor the cases, say they
know of no IRS inquiries in the past three years into claims of
partisanship by houses of worship. IRS church audits are
confidential, but usually become public as the targeted religious
groups fight to maintain their nonprofit status.
The impression created is that no one is minding the store, said
Melissa Rogers, a legal scholar and director of the Center for
Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity
School in North Carolina. When theres an impression the IRS is not
enforcing the restriction that seems to embolden some to cross the
The issue is closely watched by a cadre of attorneys and former
IRS officials who specialize in tax-exempt law, along with watchdog
groups on competing sides of the church-state debate.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which seeks
strict limits on religious involvement in politics, and the Alliance
Defending Freedom, which considers the regulations unconstitutional
government intrusion, scour the political landscape for any
potential cases. While Americans United gathers evidence it hopes
will prompt an IRS investigation, the Alliance Defending Freedom
jumps in to provide a defense. Neither group knows of any IRS
contact with houses of worship over political activity since the
2009 federal ruling.
Nicholas Cafardi, a Duquesne University Law School professor and
Roman Catholic canon lawyer who specializes in tax-exempt law, said
he has heard of no IRS inquiries over churches and politics in the
last three years. Neither has Marcus Owens, a Washington attorney
who spent a decade as head of the IRS tax-exempt division and is now
in private practice.
Owens, who was with the IRS through 2000, said the agency had
once initiated between 20 and 30 inquiries each year concerning
political activity by churches or pastors. He said he knew of only
two recent cases pursued against houses of worship or pastors and
neither involved complaints over partisan activity. …