IRS not enforcing rules on churches and politics
In Texas, a pastor of a small independent church posted a sign on the front of the building that read, ‘‘Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim.’’ Romney is the first Mormon nominee for president by a major party. Opponents of Obama, who is Christian, have spread false rumors that he is Muslim.
Renwicks made his comments Oct. 18, at a Washington seminar on tax-exempt organizations presented by the American Law Institute-Continuing Legal Education. Responding to a moderator’s question about the status of church audits, Renwicks said, ‘‘we’re basically holding any potential church audits — they’re basically in abeyance.
‘‘I haven’t done a church audit in quite some time,’’ said Renwicks, according to a recording of the talk provided by the American Law Institute. ‘‘There were one or two — what I'd call somewhat, maybe potentially egregious cases — where I thought maybe, we need to go out there, but even those were put in abeyance until we get the signature issue resolved.’’
An IRS reorganization in 1998 put responsibility for authorizing the audits in the hands of lower-ranking IRS officials. A Minnesota pastor, who faced an audit over his 2007 endorsement from the pulpit of Rep. Michele Bachmann, argued the IRS was violating its own rules. In 2009, a federal judge agreed, prompting a formal IRS rule-making process that continues today.
Dean Zerbe, a former senior counsel to the Senate Finance Committee who specializes in tax fraud and abuse, said the audits are ‘‘an extremely hellish area for the IRS to deal with.’’
The agency has to balance enforcement with churches’ First Amendment rights. Even when the federal agency finds an outright violation, the penalty for houses of worship is usually little more than a warning. The IRS has revoked nonprofit status in just a handful of these cases since the rules for religious groups were adopted in 1954.
Last month, more than 1,500 pastors, organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, endorsed a candidate from the pulpit and then sent a record of their statement to the IRS, hoping their challenge would eventually end up in court. The Alliance has organized the event, called ‘‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday,’’ since 2008. The IRS has never contacted a pastor involved in the protest.
‘‘I think people are misled to think the IRS wakes up every morning wanting to knock on the door of a church or synagogue,’’ said Zerbe. ‘‘Most senators blanch at the idea of having an IRS agent in the pews listening to what’s going on from the pulpit. ... I think the IRS in some ways reflects that similar discomfort.’’