Please God, Don’t Let Us Get Audited: IRS Is Scaring The Hell Out Of Churches
Pastors across the country live in fear that the IRS will come knocking, and that fear is growing as candidates prepare to announce their 2016 presidential candidacies.
Pastors navigating vague IRS laws that legislators have been lax in reforming are now worried that exercising their First Amendment rights will cost them their tax exempt status. They are worried that any political comments, even by a guest pastor, could cost them their church, and experts say there is little hope of reform before the next election.
These vague tax laws, that lawyers say even they don’t fully understand, have led to fearful citizens and selective enforcement which directly hinders free speech, according to a bipartisan panel of tax experts in Washington D.C. on Thursday.
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, works with churches across the country on how to avoid violating tax laws. He said that fear of the IRS prevents many pastors from speaking their minds on political issues.
The IRS recently said that it currently has 99 churches under high priority investigation, Stanley said.
“The problem with the vagueness of the law is exacerbated by the spotty enforcement, and basically unequal and sometimes selective prosecution that’s gone on,” Stanley told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The IRS will go after certain groups and other groups, but not other groups and there’s no explanation given for why that seems to be that case.”
In the case of Branch Ministries vs. Rossotti, the IRS went after a church that put an ad in USA Today telling Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton. Stanley said that for their defense they submitted hundreds of pages of newspaper articles of churches doing the same thing who were not prosecuted, demonstrating a long history of seemingly arbitrary enforcement.
Stanley said many pastors self-report themselves to the IRS, but only a fraction are actually investigated. ADF has invested in educating pastors, but he said it’s really impossible to educate all pastors on what they can and cannot do.
Experts on the panel said the vague tax laws are so undefined that even lawyers are unsure about what they mean. This leaves churches not knowing if they’re stepping over the line, causing a “chill” on free speech.
Stanley said that fear is worsened by liberal groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation who send out mass mailings to churches warning them that political action could get their tax exempt status revoked, something that would force many churches to shut down.
“A lot of churches, because of the fear of the IRS audit, they are just going to do anything to say ‘no, I’ll stop doing what I’m doing because I don’t want the audit,'” Stanley told TheDCNF.
Secular nonprofits are also subject to the problems of navigating vague tax laws that are selectively enforced. That mutual frustration, from secular and religious and both sides of the aisle, is what brought the panel together Thursday.
ADF, the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability, Center for American Progress and Public Citizen held the panel, with a speech from U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.
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