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Archive for Friday, February 15, 2008

Walking the line

Churches balance civic involvement, tax regulations for elections

February 15, 2008

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The Rev. Scott Hanks has faith in his congregation's politics. The Heritage Baptist Church pastor wants members to be active in the political process. He hopes they caucused earlier this month. He wants them to vote in the presidential election.

He also wants them to keep their faith in mind when they vote.

But he can't tell them that.

The IRS makes sure there's no room for politics on the church pew. Churches are classified as 503(c)(3) organizations, which are tax-exempt. Since 1954, national law has prohibited such organizations from engaging in any political campaign activity.

That means if a pastor like Hanks were to endorse a presidential candidate, Heritage Baptist, 1781 E. 800 Road, could lose its tax-exempt status and end up with a financial mess.

To avoid such a headache, Hanks and other pastors around Lawrence must toe a line between preaching and politicking during election season. That's not to say that Hanks wants his congregation to be uninformed - he posts a candidate guide from an outside source in the church. The guide shows how candidates from both parties break down on several issues, including those that Hanks' congregation feels strongly about.

"I don't have to name a candidate. All I've got to do is name the moral issues involved, and the membership can put two plus two together," he says. "If you just preach the Bible, people are going to figure out, 'Well, this person doesn't line up with what the scripture says, so I shouldn't vote for that person.'"

Politicians and the tax man

Churches and charities both fall under the 503(c)(3) measure that bans politicking as a must for keeping tax-exempt status. But how would the IRS know if politics slipped into Sunday's sermon?

"Generally speaking, and this applies to all exempt organizations, not just churches, if someone sees something they think is not within the law, it can be reported to the Internal Revenue Service. Or if there's a report in the media about activities - however the IRS would become aware of a potential problem," IRS spokesman Michael Divine says. "Then the decision would be made by experts in the exempt organization area about whether they need to send a letter, ask for an explanation or just say, 'No, that's probably OK, we don't have to worry about it.' But it's all based on the individual facts and circumstances."

For the 2006 election cycle, the IRS received 237 referrals nationwide and selected 100 - 44 churches and 56 nonchurches - for examination. Some of those cases are still under investigation, but at least 26 cases of improper political activity were found and issued written advisories. No recommendations to revoke nonprofit status have been reported.

In 2004, the IRS selected 110 cases for examination, issued 69 written advisories, revoked the tax-exempt status of five organizations and proposed the revocation for two others.

Just this week, an attorney for a Los Angeles-area pastor confirmed the pastor is under investigation after he endorsed Mike Huckabee's candidacy for president.

Divine says churches and other tax-exempt organizations have no reason not to know the rules. The guidelines are spelled out clearly on the IRS Web site, along with an eight-page document packed with examples about what is inappropriate and what is acceptable.

What happened to the five organizations that lost their status in 2004?

"Basically, if an organization loses its exempt status, contributions are no longer deductible, and they may have to pay taxes on the income that they had for the period that is affected by the ruling," Divine says.

And the re-application process is long and airs every bit of an organization's financial dirty laundry.

"It's transparent," Divine says of the application process. "One of the advantages of exempt organizations not paying taxes is that the process is open for view. So when there's an exempt organization, whether it be a religious organization or an environmental fund or something like that, it needs to be open so that everyone can see that they do, in fact, deserve the benefits of being an exempt organization."

The tightrope

The Rev. Peter Luckey refers to this situation as a tightrope strung between faith and social action.

"What we say is that we walk a tightrope all the time. And here's the tightrope - on one hand we believe that our faith transcends all political candidacies or political parties. Yet at the same time, the content of our faith believes in the importance of justice and compassion, and calls us to be engaged in a fight and struggle for justice and peace in the world," says the senior pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. "It necessarily means that we, out of our faith, are going to be involved in political issues and the political process.

"So the question is, 'How can we be involved and engaged in politics and yet at the same time keep ourselves removed from it enough that we do not espouse any one particular candidacy?'"

For Hanks, the pastor at Heritage Bible, the answer to that question is simple: stay with the Bible.

"I think the problem is most pastors are afraid to speak out about the moral issues of a candidate because he's afraid of losing his 503(c)(3). But the bottom line is that God made that pastor as the overseer of that flock or membership that he teaches and preaches," Hanks says. "If a preacher would just preach the Bible, a church member would know who to vote for."

Luckey agrees but says that no matter whom his church members chose, they should be prepared for what he calls "the marvelous mess of what we call democracy." He notes a gap between principles and reality but says that shouldn't stop anyone from enlisting faith when picking a candidate.

"At its best, what a life of faith does is help ground people in what are the ultimate principles of importance in their lives," Luckey says. "And those ought to be the principles that are inside (the heart of) who leads our country."

Comments

laninonnie 6 years, 1 month ago

FYI-Hanks has never endorsed a candidate from the pulpit.

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Marion Lynn 6 years, 2 months ago

Removal of the 501(C)3 exemption would not only affect churches but all non-profits.

Let's face it also, whether or not you adhere to Christianity or any other religion, churches as a whole do a lot of good work which they could not do without the exemption.

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ontheotherhand 6 years, 2 months ago

Oops! Let me resend my post. I had deleted a few sentences and realized that the finished product was messed up. My apologies. Here is a clearer response:

Sig, anyone who knows Peter Luckey of Plymouth Congregational knows that he and his church are very "democrat" in their leanings. Pastor L is about as close to being a "liberal pastor" as there is in Lawrence. To put him in the same category as Scott Hanks is an insult.

So, the next time you think a story is not very balanced, perhaps you should do your homework first.

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ontheotherhand 6 years, 2 months ago

Sigmund (Anonymous) says: Why is there never any balance in these stories? You would think any competent reporter, as opposed to a propagandist like Sarah Henning, could have found at least one pastor in Lawrence who is supporting the liberal democrats to act as a counterpoint to the conservative republican pastor. === Sig, sometimes the anyone who know Peter Luckey of Plymouth Congregational knows that he and his church are very democrat in their leanings. Pastor L is about as close to being a "liberal pastor" there is in Lawrence. To put him in the same category as Scott Hanks is an insult.

So, the next time you think a story is not very balanced, perhaps you should do your homework first.

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justthefacts 6 years, 2 months ago

There are pastors who support Democratic candidates - plenty of them. Whether accurate or not, they regard candidates from that party as being more likely to have the poor's best interests at the center of their platforms. However, whether conservative or liberal/progressive candidates are favored by a particular faith, the leaders of a particular church risk losing their tax exempt status if they do anything to support one candidate or party over another. That includes staff, not just pastors (no sending out an email to the church members urging them to vote on Tuesday, for the candidate who favors xyz the most). They simply can urge civic involvement, but no leaning one way or the other. Losing tax exempt status would mean they'd have to pay property and sales tax. Just like other businesses. Maybe that's a result we should want, but currently the 501(c)(3) protections are one reason some people go into the "church business" in the first place!

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Bowhunter99 6 years, 2 months ago

this Hanks dude knows he's breaking he law, yet he continues to do so.

Let the IRS come over and remove his church's tax exempt status...

Come to think of it, no church should be exempt of taxes. One look at all of the Huge new buildings and the endless vacation trips to foreign lands on the name of God have to stop being subsidized by the government. Want either one of them? sure... go ahead and pay for them with after tax income like the rest of us.

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Pilgrim 6 years, 2 months ago

Sigmund (Anonymous) says:

Why is there never any balance in these stories? You would think any competent reporter, as opposed to a propagandist like Sarah Henning, could have found at least one pastor in Lawrence who is supporting the liberal democrats to act as a counterpoint to the conservative republican pastor.


Luckey and his church are about as liberal as it gets. Henning did her job.

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Baille 6 years, 2 months ago

"The Rev. Scott Hanks has faith in his congregation's politics. The Heritage Baptist Church pastor wants members to be active in the political process. He hopes they caucused earlier this month. He wants them to vote in the presidential election.

"He also wants them to keep their faith in mind when they vote.

"But he can't tell them that."

According to your article, he can tell his congregation all of that: be active in politics, caucus, vote in November, remember you are a crazed zealot when you vote. All that is fine. He just can't tell them who to vote for, right?

"Churches are classified as 503(c)(3) organizations, which are tax-exempt. Since 1954, national law has prohibited such organizations from engaging in any political campaign activity. That means if a pastor like Hanks were to endorse a presidential candidate [his church] could lose its tax-exempt status and end up [paying taxes like everyone else]."

Nice spin,Sarah, but your premise doesn't seem to match your evidence.

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overplayedhistory 6 years, 2 months ago

People voted for a candidate because he was pro life. Then their guy turned around and caused the death of over 100,000 people, some of whom were babies. Then they voted for him again. Any person who claims to be pro life that vote for W a second time is by definition a hypocrite. Do you serve only to protect Christian babies?

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overplayedhistory 6 years, 2 months ago

Getting rid of tax exemption is probably a better solution. Government charity should not necessary when God is on your side.

I have a News flash for the Church folk: Roe v Wade will never be overturned no matter what your candidate says to you.

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overplayedhistory 6 years, 2 months ago

Here is one more solution: people who care only about Roe vrs. Wade create there own political party. Give back the republican party.

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myvotecounts 6 years, 2 months ago

Five revocations of the church exemption in four years shows the exemption is not seriously enforced. The exemption is widely abused by false prophets overcome by greed and their desire for power; and by churches who expand their modest "houses of worship" into opulent private clubs with restaurants, fitness rooms and entertainment venues. According to Paul the church is in man's heart; not a building. There is no reason for churches to get favorable tax treatment, except as to charitable dollars they spend like the rest of us--on actual charities.

On the other hand, Huckabee announces he wants to "put the IRS out of business," so the IRS targets a pastor who supports him? Not hard to figure that one out.

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gl0ck0wnr 6 years, 2 months ago

Here is an easy solution: stop giving churches tax benefits.

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Sigmund 6 years, 2 months ago

Why is there never any balance in these stories? You would think any competent reporter, as opposed to a propagandist like Sarah Henning, could have found at least one pastor in Lawrence who is supporting the liberal democrats to act as a counterpoint to the conservative republican pastor. Does Sarah feel that only the conservative pastors have violated the law, that there are no liberal pastors to be found in Lawrence, or that it is OK for liberal pastors but not for conservative pastors?

The most biased bit of writing on the LJW Online in a long time.

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Sigmund 6 years, 2 months ago

The Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright has faith in his congregation's politics. The Trinity United Church of Christ and Barack Obama's pastor wants members to be active in the political process. He hopes they caucused earlier this month. He wants them to vote in the presidential election. He also wants them to keep their faith in mind when they vote. But he can't tell them that.

The IRS makes sure there's no room for politics on the church pew. Churches are classified as 503(c)(3) organizations, which are tax-exempt. Since 1954, national law has prohibited such organizations from engaging in any political campaign activity.

That means if a pastor like Wright were to endorse a presidential candidate, Trinity United Church of Christ, 400 West 95th Street, Chicago, Illinois could lose its tax-exempt status and end up with a financial mess.

To avoid such a headache, Wright and other pastors around the country must toe a line between preaching and politicking during election season. That's not to say that Wright wants his congregation to be uninformed - he posts a candidate guide from an outside source in the church. The guide shows how candidates from both parties break down on several issues, including those that Hanks' congregation feels strongly about.

The Pastor as well as the membership of Trinity United Church of Christ is committed to a 10-point Vision: 1. a congregation committed to ADORATION. 2. a congregation preaching SALVATION. 3. a congregation actively seeking RECONCILIATION. 4. a congregation with a non-negotiable COMMITMENT TO AFRICA. 5. a congregation committed to BIBLICAL EDUCATION. 6. a congregation committed to CULTURAL EDUCATION. 7. a congregation committed to the HISTORICAL EDUCATION OF AFRICAN PEOPLE IN DIASPORA. 8. a congregation committed to LIBERATION. 9. a congregation committed to RESTORATION. 10. a congregation working towards ECONOMIC PARITY. http://www.tucc.org/about.htm

"I don't have to name a candidate. All I've got to do is name the moral issues involved, and the membership can put two plus two together," he says. "If you just preach the Bible, people are going to figure out, 'Well, this person doesn't line up with what the scripture says, so I shouldn't vote for that person.'" http://www.tucc.org/store/index.cfm?action=moreinfo&pid=216

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goatdog 6 years, 2 months ago

Dear filthy christian pigs! I pray everyday that what you have done unto others will very soon be done unto you! Scum!

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BigPrune 6 years, 2 months ago

There are people who hate religion who sit covertly in the pews hoping to catch a slip up from a preacher.

Beware of strangers lurking, but do treat them Christian like.

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americorps 6 years, 2 months ago

I have been grateful to see the IRS tow the line on this a little tighter over the last few years. If they want the tax exempt status, follow the law. Hail unto Cesar what is Cesar's and unto God what is God's.

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