Tuesday, November 6, 2012
With today's election, the perennial issue of church political involvement has once again gained prominence. What is new is the since-repudiated statement of an IRS official confirming what many have long suspected - that the still pending regulations on who exactly within the IRS can sign off on a church tax inquiry have left such inquiries in limbo. As reported by the AP and republished at the Huffington Post, and also previously reported by Christianity Today, a manager in the IRS Mid-Atlantic region said such inquiries had been suspended pending these regulations, but an IRS spokesman quickly said the manager "misspoke", although the spokesman refused to provide any more details about the status of such inquiries. Both an academic and a practitioner quoted in the AP story said they were not aware of any church tax inquiries over the past three years. This is apparently the case even with the increasingly popularity of Pulpit Freedom Sunday, as the press has noticed (see, for example, coverage by NBC News and The Nonprofit Quarterly).
There is also an interesting lack of activity on the side of those seeking to challenging the limits on church political activity, not with respect to such activity itself but instead with respect to forcing the IRS into court. While a church that allegedly violates the prohibition on political campaign intervention cannot force the IRS to launch a church tax inquiry, such a church that has not yet applied for tax-exempt status could file such an application, fully disclose its actual or planned political activity, and then wait to see what the IRS does. If the IRS grants the application that would give a green light for such activity. If the IRS denies the application or refuses to rule on it for 270 days, the church could file a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that it qualifies for exemption, thereby forcing the IRS to litigate the validity of the prohibition assuming the church otherwise qualifies for exemption under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3). It is not clear why the the Alliance Defending Freedom (previously named the Alliance Defense Fund), which has brought us Pulpit Freedom Sunday, or other groups that assert they are seeking to challenging the prohibition have not pursued this route in order to bring this issue to a head.