Should religious groups be targeted by IRS?

If religious organizations are playing politics, why not? Photo: Rev. Billy Graham with President Obama

WASHINGTON, May 20, 2013 — When are a religion’s prayers a call to God for help and when are they a political call to action by God? It’s a thin line, a very thin line.

Too often religious organizations mix piety and politics, often from the pulpit. So why shouldn’t the IRS look at them more carefully?

According to a report by the Religion News Service, a non-profit news service operated out of the University of Missouri’s journalism school, six religious groups claim the IRS has singled them out, giving them an extra degree of scrutiny.

The Graham Ads

Leading the group is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that ran ads in 2012 (with designated funds from donors just for that purpose) in support of a North Carolina amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage. The ban passed last year.

It also took ads in an Ohio newspaper asking voters there to back gay marriage opponents at the polls. And it has exhorted voters to consider those candidates who based “their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel.” The IRS audited the Association in October 2012.

SEE RELATED: IRS targeted Tea Party, violating Constitution

Mitt Romney with Billy and Franklin Graham just before the election AP photo

The full-page newspaper ads in question show the Rev. Billy Graham, saying: “I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”

Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, wrote President Obama on May 14th, complaining that two of the organizations that he heads up were audited, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse.

“I am bringing this to your attention because I believe that someone in the Administration was targeting and attempting to intimidate us. This is morally wrong and unethical — indeed some would call it ‘unAmerican.’”

However, working to support the passage of a legislative amendment via ads is political and not religious, even if the Graham ministries believes that being against same-sex marriage is part of their religious beliefs. Once the Grahams entered the realm of advocating for or against specific legislative initiatives and for candidates who support their positions, their beliefs became political.

What Makes A Religious Belief Political?

Last year, after Billy Graham met with and endorsed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Rob Boston Communications Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said that the younger Graham has no basis for complaining about the IRS.

“Franklin Graham is now complaining to the media that he was targeted by the IRS. Well, in light of those ads he should have been,” Boston said. “My only regret was that the IRS didn’t yank his ministries’ tax-exempt status.”

Other religious organizations complaining that they were red flagged by the IRS include: theBiblical Recorder in North Carolina, a conservative Jewish group called Z Street in Pennsylvania, a conservative advocacy group called Catholic League that was accused of intervening in the 2008 political campaign (it kept its tax-exempt status), Catholics United Education Fund, Christian Voices for Life in Texas, an advocacy arm of the James Dobson’s Family Talk called Family Talk Action, and the Coalition for Life of Iowa.

The latter group touts itself as promoting “respect for human life…through prayer, education and raising awareness.”

Last Friday, at a House hearing looking into the alleged IRS abuses, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) cited the Coalition’s complaint and in particular one question from the IRS that read: “Please detail the content of…your organization’s prayers.”

The Congressman railed at acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller, who has been fired by President Obama, “Would that be an appropriate question to a 501c3 applicant? The content of prayers?”

Miller replied, “It pains me to say I can’t speak to that one either.”

His answer should have been: “Yes. Just what was it that the Coalition’s prayers beseeched God to do? Defeat candidate X because s/he disagrees with their religious beliefs? That crosses the line.”

IRS Bungled Any Chance for Reform

However, it appears that most of these religious organizations — while having to wait a bit to get their status okayed or having been audited as the Graham Association was — none has been penalized.

And that’s actually a shame. So many churches and religious organizations violate the separation of church and state while enjoying the benefits of not paying taxes. It is too bad the IRS did not crack down a long time ago.

Now with the targeting of those groups with the words Tea Party in their names and the use of such words as “patriot,” “9/12” or “making America a better place to life,” the IRS itself has crossed the line, making it nearly impossible to get tough with the real violators that pass themselves off as educational groups all the while involving themselves in political action.

Now, thanks to this IRS debacle, religious groups will be free to back legislative amendments, take out ads for candidates that support their religious beliefs and advocate from the pulpit for candidates who share their values.

This is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned when they wrote the Constitution, far from it. One of the things they wanted to ensure was that there would be very separate arenas for churches and the government. Now those lines are blurred and will be for a long time to come.

To contact Catherine Poe, see above. Her work appears in Ad Lib at the Communities @ She can also be heard on Democrats for America’s Future. She is also a contributor to broadcast, print and online media.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Catherine Poe

Catherine was named one of the top Progressives in Maryland along with Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congresswoman Donna Edwards. She has been a guest of President Obama in the Rose Garden.

As past president of Long Island NOW, she worked to reform women's prisons in New York, open the construction trades to women, change laws to safeguard battered women, and protect the rights of rape victims. 

Long active in Democratic politics, she served as the presidentof the Talbot Democrats in Maryland for six years and fought to getthe Health Care Reform bill passed.

Catherine has been published in a diverse range of newspapers and magazines, including Newsday, Star Democrat, Rocky Mountain News, Yellowstone News, and the Massachusetts Review.

If Catherine has learned anything over the years it is that progressive change does not come easily, but in baby steps. 

Contact Catherine Poe


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