AU head says IRS scrutiny warranted

Americans United for Separation of Church and State says nonprofit charities should have to answer to the IRS when they endorse candidates.

By Bob Allen

An advocate for church/state separation says evangelist Franklin Graham has no right to complain about an IRS audit because of rules against partisan politics by nonprofit organizations that are exempt from paying taxes.

Graham wrote a letter May 14 to President Obama complaining that both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse were targeted in the same way that organizations applying for nonprofit status with “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their names were subjected to greater scrutiny than non-conservative groups.

graham franklinIn a May 16 op-ed in the Washington Post, however, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said Graham is a victim not of IRS overreach but of his own “lust for the media spotlight” and dislike for President Obama.

Graham’s organizations applied for and received IRS 501(c)3 exemptions that apply to religious, educational, charitable, scientific, arts, child- or animal-cruelty prevention organizations, community groups and others often referred to as “friend-of” groups. Among other things, the designation allows donors to deduct charitable contributions from their federal taxes.

Groups holding 501(c)(3) status are restricted in how much political and legislative lobbying they may conduct. According to IRS code, they “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Lynn said Graham did precisely that by advising followers to support only “candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel” and arranging for his father to meet with and endorse Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Soon afterward, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association bought full-page newspaper ads featuring the famed evangelist stating: “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.”

Lynn said it was common knowledge at the time that Obama supported same-sex marriage while Romney opposed it. “In light of that, you’d have to be pretty dense to read these ads as anything but a command to vote for Romney,” Lynn wrote.

Lynn said the IRS knows about such violations, because Americans United has for years been urging them to crack down on tax-exempt religious organizations that violate the ban on partisan electioneering.

It’s so common in houses of worship, Lynn said, that one Religious Right group called the Alliance Defending Freedom sets aside a Sunday each year to encourage churches to ignore the law as a matter of civil disobedience.

“This activity was clearly an effort by one of the Graham families’ tax-exempt groups to directly affect the outcome of the election,” Lynn contended. “If this brazen action led to IRS scrutiny, I’m fine with that. My only regret is that the agency didn’t yank the BGEA’s tax-exempt status for doing so.”

“The problem isn’t that the IRS is being too aggressive in this area,” said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “It’s that its enforcement efforts have been sporadic, unfocused and tepid. Instead of putting applications from Tea Party groups under a microscope, the IRS would do better to crack down on Graham and the religious leaders like him who openly flout federal tax law.”

A Fox News story about the Graham organizations being targeted also claimed the Biblical Recorder, a North Carolina Baptist newspaper that last summer ran a controversial story about Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy’s views on gay marriage, was being audited for the first time since its founding in 1803.

Recorder Editor Alan Blume later circulated an e-mail saying he misspoke with reporter Todd Starnes and learned later that the IRS performed an audit on the newspaper about 10 or 15 years ago for reasons similar to the recent audit.

A statement on the Biblical Recorder website said Blume remained cautious about making any assumptions, but is “curious” about the audit.

“Last year the Biblical Recorder took a clear stand for family values throughout North Carolina’s marriage amendment vote,” Blume said. “We would like to know if the Biblical Recorder showed up on the IRS’ radar ... because of our stand on biblical values.”