Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning

As you know I’m a very religious guy.

You didn’t know that?

But haven’t I tried to sell you on UUism, the faith without a creed, the people who, if crossed with Jehovah’s Witnesses, would knock on your door without quite knowing why?

Ah, good then. Now you remember. (In the confession booth: I haven’t been to church more than once or twice a year since Robert became too big to intimidate into coming with me.)

That off my chest, let’s get down to business: the title of my post is from this link:

Anti-War Sermon Brings IRS Warning

I actually forwarded this to my minister, saying that I was doing so in my capacity as “Former Finance Chair” (of the congregation).

I used that (admittedly small) leverage to make the point that taking away tax-exempt status is a non-event for the typical American congregation. I.e., there simply isn’t any net income to be taxed.

I thought this piercing insight might be valuable to my minister because, although of course all ministers are wo/men of principle, it’s nice to know that, even if that nasty revenue agent does take away your tax-exempt status, it’s not going to cost you anything.

I further thought my advice timely because today is Election Day.

In Maine, as in Collie-fahnya (sorry, but our state’s name is easier to pronounce – maybe Arnie should’ve lived in Maine – nah, it’s boring, tiny, parochial), there are seven ballot initiatives. No. 1 in Maine is: "Do you want to reject the new law that would protect people from discrimination in employment, housing, education, public accommodations and credit based on their sexual orientation?"

This question came before voters twice in the 1990s (three times if you count the first one, which was City of Portland only – the right got clobbered in that one, but the pinch-faced people prevailed in the statewide elections … polls say otherwise this time), and our church played a role in each of the statewide referendums (the city referendum having taken place while I still lived in Connecticut – which passed a Lesbian/gay rights law in the 1980s – and in any case I live in Cumberland, not Portland).

In the first statewide election, our minister (not the present one) offered – and obtained a face-to-face meeting (in a local watering hole) with the instigator of an initiative to amend the state constitution to override the Portland Lesbian/gay rights law. That initiative failed (55% to 45%).

The second time around, the Legislature passed and the Governor (not our present Governor) signed a Lesbian/gay rights bill, and the right petitioned it onto the ballot and won 54% to 46%. (How do you read the two elections???)
Anyway, that time, our minister (still another one) sermonized from the pulpit while the TV cameras rolled, cutting back and forth between our pulpit and that of the right-wing pastor who had spearheaded the repeal initiative (who appears to do nothing but campaign against gay people but apparently without attracting the notice of the IRS).

Anyway, ………it seems to me that if the Pasadena congregation stepped over the line, then we did too, and in spades.

So the IRS should lean us, too. It should try to get us to admit fault, just as it did with All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena.

Last month, the Maine Department of Human Services announced


that it was turning down US government funding for sex education because of the Bush Administration’s abstinence-only restriction (a gag rule).

That took courage. Only two other states have done it. It costs real money to do that.

It doesn’t cost any money for the typical congregation, even the typical mega-church, (and with 3,500 members, All Saints is a megachurch of the left) to do the same: i.e., to tell the IRS to go to hell (and still comply with the tax law).

I long for my church, and my minister (who is gay, and married to his life partner, under Canadian law), to play a more prominent role in terms of political advocacy (never mind what a prominent profile the church already has). I conceive of that in terms of issues; I want my church to come right out and take a position on Lesbian/gay rights (it already does), health care (it doesn’t), war (it doesn’t), political prisoners (it does), the minimum wage (it doesn’t), and so on.

And so it would be a big laugh – on me – if the “play it safe” people in the congregation – practically a dominant force, now – since most of us are AARP members – were to impose some sort of guidelines that were intended to make sure we never run afoul of the IRS thought police.


Blogger Jim H said...

Rick: Your link to the LA Times doesn't work-it only goes to the log in page.

In any event, I think your analysis is flawed for this reason: the loss of 501(c)(3) status would mean that contributions to the church would not be tax deductible, which would impose a cost upon contributors, who would not get the tax advantage, and the church, which would receive less in giving (as noble as the charitable urge is, it wanes when there is no tax benefit).

It is the impact on donations that is important to most churches, not the need to pay taxes on non-existent income.

P.S. I will have more to say about propositions if I find the time to put my fingers to keyboard. As you might guess from my post on the main page today, I am not a fan.

November 09, 2005 2:29 PM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

Jim H:

Good point. The --um, "Finance Chair" stands corrected.

I agree that it would impact donations -- but what does this tell us?

The amount of money that the church would have to raise wouldn't change. The amount of the checks written to the church wouldn't change, either.

We are left to conclude that, when the IRS comes knocking, the church elders (those let's-not-rock-the-boat folks that I fear so much) would lean on the minister to preserve their tax deductions.

That's a far cry from standing up on principle, a far cry from what the Maine Department of Human Services had the courage to do. (Another move that ultimately will have tax consequences for those church elders, since the State Constitution requires a balanced budget, and schools are still providing sex education classes.)

November 09, 2005 3:39 PM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

Regarding the LA Times link, I couldn't find another way in. I think you just have to go through their free registration (and endure the resulting barrage of advertising ... you could use a disposable email address ...)

November 09, 2005 3:56 PM  
Blogger Jim H said...

"The amount of the checks wouldn't change, either." Seems to me the risk is that the amount WOULD change, because of the loss of the tax deduction, causing contributors to reduce the amount of their gifts.

That doesn't directly address the question of whether the elders should act on principle, it simply shows that there is a cost to such a stand, which makes it more difficult.

I'd like to read the LATimes article you sight. I'm already registered there (and NYT and WSJ) and I haven't been spammed by them. Just post the complete URL and I will be able to get to the article

November 09, 2005 4:19 PM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

O.k., try this URL:


When we passed a budget at the church and tried to raise money to fund it (an enormously frustrating task), we didn't make our pitch in terms of the after-tax cost to the contributor (and I would imagine that budgeting and canvassing works pretty much the same way at all non-profits, at least it does at United Way, where I was a Loaned Executive). Tax-deductibility was never mentioned. That's why it might not be the first thing on everybody's mind when the IRS comes knocking. Resistance is more likely to be the initial reaction. Still, after the hot-headed calls for intransigence die down, those insidious church elders ("Governing Board" at our church) could probably be counted upon to point out the toll that would be exacted on everybody's tax return.

I keep comparing this to the State Government's refusal of abstinence-only funds. Who knows, maybe the Governor will get his comeuppance from the various taxpayers associations for doing what he did. He still has to get elected again.

November 09, 2005 8:08 PM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

Oh, and I did get a reply from my minister. He did not mention tax deductibility. This may simply be an oversight (like me). But I think it also shows that, psychologically, the impact on the individual tax returns of the parishioners is not the first thing that comes to mind when the IRS takes on a church.

In the interests of giving you the full truth, he didn't say anything either way about the financial impact of losing non-profit status, so maybe he was just being nice.

He did say that it's his understanding that it's a civil rights question that's on the ballot, it's okay for church's to pitch in. He's careful never to endorse a candidate.

Take a look at the article and let me know if you think the sermon at the Pasadena church crosses this line.

November 09, 2005 8:19 PM  
Blogger Jim H said...

Having now read the article--and with the caveat that I am not a tax lawyer--I can't see any equitable reason for the IRS action. It sure looks politically motivated to me. Anybody who believes the IRS does not take action for political reasons is kidding himself. I noticed that, according to the LATimes article, the church's lawyer is a former head of the IRS tax-exempt section, and he says he thinks the IRS's position is ludicrous.

My first reaction was that your church's actions were closer to violating the law, since you suggest the minister advocated from the pulpit which way the congregation should vote on the initiatives. The Pasadena church is contending that it did NOT advocate a vote for Kerry. However, I then did a few minutes of legal research, and it appears that the law only applies to political activity with respect to a CANDIDATE, not with respect to initiatives. See the following: Tax Guide For Churches and Religious Organizations. I haven't read the IRC regulations that establish these requirements, and until doing so I can't be sure of the law's scope, but the guide carefully refers only to candidates. Thus, your minister may be exactly correct--sounds like he's gotten some good advice.

November 10, 2005 10:01 AM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...



Political activity with respect to a candidate?

The Rev. Lusk, subject of the above article, made a speech in his church that was simulcast at the Republican National Convention.

Did the IRS investigate? Only after Rev. Barry, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, complained.

Not surprisingly, the IRS dropped the case soon afterward. Ouch, hot potatoe! (as a certain former Veep might put it).

January 05, 2006 6:09 PM  

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