Thursday, August 15, 2013
The Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations has released its second report in response to a request from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) for guidance. The approximately 60-page report titled “Government Regulation of Political Speech by Religious and Other 501(c)(3) Organizations: Why the Status Quo Is Untenable and Proposed Solutions” made three primary recommendations:
- Clergy should be able to say whatever they believe is appropriate in the context of their religious services or other regular religious activities without fear of reprisal by the Internal Revenue (IRS), even when that communication includes content related to political candidates. The communication would be permissible provided that the organization’s costs would be the same with or without the political communication.
- Secular nonprofits should have “comparable latitude when engaging in regular, exempt-purpose activities and communications.”
- Current IRS policy not permitting tax-deductible funds to be disbursed for political purposes should be preserved.
According to Commission Chair Michael Batts, “The law prohibiting political campaign participation and intervention by 501(c)(3) organizations as currently applied and administered lacks clarity, integrity, respect, and consistency.” He maintains that 501(c)(3) organizations’ leaders “are never quite sure where the lines of demarcation are, and the practical effect of such vagueness is to chill free speech -- often in the context of exercising religion.”
The report discusses the history of the ban on political campaign participation or intervention, which was included in the Revenue Act of 1954. It also identifies key cases in which the IRS has examined organizations or their leaders for certain actions, particularly several instances during the 2004 presidential campaign.
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) established the commission in response to a January 2011 request by Sen. Grassley to coordinate a national effort to provide input on accountability, tax policy and political expression for nonprofits in general and religious organizations in particular. The commission is comprised of 14 members and 66 panel members, including legal experts and representatives of religious and nonprofit sector organizations.