Friday, April 15, 2022
Charity Scandals: AME Church Suspends Pensions; Finance Director Stole $4.7 Million from WV Charity; Update on Minnesota's Feeding the Future
It sadly has become difficult to keep up with all of the news reports about charity insiders misusing funds - maybe it is time to update the 2003 paper by Marion R. Fremont-Smith and Andras Kosaras on Wrongdoing By Officers and Directors of Charities: A Survey of Press Reports 1995-2002, 42 Exempt Organization Tax Review 25. So I am going to limit my reporting here to several recent reports involving millions of dollars each:
- AME Church: The Wall Street Journal reports (subscription required) that the African Methodist Episcopal Church "has suspended retirement payments and discussed steep cuts to the savings of its ministers amid an investigation into missing funds." The church further said that there is an ongoing investigation, including by federal law enforcement, of a possible financial crime. The pension fund, which reportedly had about $120 million in assets as of 2017, serves about 5,000 retired clergy and church workers. Additional coverage: Religious News Service.
- River Valley Child Development Services (West Virginia): MarketWatch reports that a court has ordered the former director of business and finance of this charity to repay $4.7 million that she stole in the wake of her guilty plea and sentencing to seven years in prison. The article goes on to note that as part of her restitution agreement she has agreed to forfeit six airplanes apparently from a small aircraft charter and aviation services company she owned, the proceeds from the sale of three houses, and two cars.
- Feeding the Future (Minnesota) Update: I previously reported on the apparent diversion of tens of millions of dollars from federal funds provided to this charity. The Star Tribune reports that a judge will now oversee the closure of the charity after a request from the Minnesota Attorney General's office and the charity's board voting to voluntarily dissolve it. The court has begun the process of obtaining financial documentation and a complete inventory of the charity's assets. To date no charges have been filed, but federal and state investigations are ongoing. Extensive additional coverage: N.Y. Times.
Wednesday, April 13, 2022
IRS on Crowdfunding, Suspension of Delinquent Notices, Private Foundation Info, and Religious and Apostolic Associations
- Crowdfunding Taxation and Reporting: In Fact Sheet FS-2022-20, the IRS says the following about taxation of crowdfunding proceeds:
If a crowdfunding organizer solicits contributions on behalf of others, distributions of the money raised to the organizer may not be includible in the organizer's gross income if the organizer further distributes the money raised to those for whom the crowdfunding campaign was organized.
If crowdfunding contributions are made as a result of the contributors' detached and disinterested generosity, and without the contributors receiving or expecting to receive anything in return, the amounts may be gifts and therefore may not be includible in the gross income of those for whom the campaign was organized. Contributions to crowdfunding campaigns are not necessarily a result of detached and disinterested generosity, and therefore may not be gifts. Additionally, contributions to crowdfunding campaigns by an employer to, or for the benefit of, an employee are generally includible in the employee's gross income.
In the same fact sheet, the IRS also notes that crowdfunding platforms "may be required to report distributions of money raised if the amount distributed meets certain reporting thresholds by filing Form 1099-K" (now generally $600, see Form 1099-K instructions). But it also notes recent legislation clarifies that no such reporting is required "if the contributors to the crowdfunding campaign do not receive goods or services for their contributions".
- Suspension of Delinquent Notices: The IRS announced in March that it is suspending the issuance of several notices generally mailed to tax-exempt or government entities relating to delinquent returns. These include notices relating to Form 990/990-EZ/990-N, Form 99o-PF, Form 990-T, Form 5227, and form 1120-POL.
- Private Foundation Revised Guidance & Updated Data: The IRS issued two revised technical guides relating to private foundations: Publication 5616 (relating to self-dealing under IRC section 4941), and Publication 5590 (relating to taxable expenditures under IRC section 4945). It also released microdata and tables with Tax Year 2018 data on private foundations, now available at the Statistics of Income private foundation webpage.
- Religious and Apostolic Associations: Finally, the IRS also issued a revised technical guide relating to religious and apostolic associations tax exempt under IRC section 501(d), Publication 5627.
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
Today's Religion News Service (RNS) is reporting that according to a survey conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, more than half of Christian congregations say they have started a new ministry or expanded an existing one during the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, in fact, these Christian houses of worship began or broadened more than three of their outreach activities in response to the pandemic.
The Hartford Institute's report is the second installment in a five-year project that began earlier this year called “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations,” based on a collaboration among 13 denominations from the Faith Communities Today cooperative partnership and institute staffers. If their findings are representative of the roughly 320,000 Christian congregations in the country, the institute said, the researchers estimate that nearly 175,000 churches launched or expanded ministries, funds and supplies in response to the pandemic over the past two years. Overall, almost three-quarters (74%) of churches have offered social support during the pandemic and close to two-thirds of congregations say they have been involved in new ministries.
According to the RNS report,
The new findings, a November survey drawn from 820 responses from representatives of 38 Christian denominational groups, showed significant changes in congregations’ attitudes toward change, particularly increasing diversity. Less than three-quarters (73%) agreed in 2020 that their congregations were willing to change to meet new challenges. That increased to 86% in November.
There also seemed to be greater interest in striving to be diverse, with 38% describing themselves as doing so in November compared with 28% in summer of 2021 and 26% before the pandemic and before the majority of the 2020 protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
But even as congregations considered new ways of operating, an increasing number are concerned about their future, with 23% saying they are worried about their ability to continue, compared to 16% in the summer.
This worry may well be the result of a grim reality: the institute’s researchers estimated that some 200,000 church members have lost their lives due to COVID-19. The percentage of churches reporting deaths within their membership increased from 17% in the summer to 28% in November, when the second survey was conducted. The average number of deaths among those reporting losses in their congregation was 2.3, up slightly from 2 in the summer.
In response, Allison Norton, co-investigator of the study, told RNS in an email, “This is a sobering picture; however, we would have expected an even greater loss, given the aging population of regular churchgoers.”
The project’s first report, based on responses from summer 2021, showed that about a third of congregations had increased requests for food. About a quarter received more requests for financial assistance during the pandemic. The November survey found that 22% said they had added or increased food distribution and 21% had enhanced or begun financial assistance for their community.
It is good to see churches functioning in society as they should.
Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
Bloomberg Law is reporting on a number of nonprofit Christian schools, churches, and seminaries that are launching legal challenges to the OSHA test-or-vaccinate rules. (To add nonprofit on top of nonprofit, at least a handful of the cases are being handled by the nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom.)
Essentially, the ADF's suit (and, I imagine, many of the others) assert that the OSHA mandate overreaches and represents a "serious intrusion on religious autonomy and free exercise that cannot withstand scrutiny under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act."
I'm not a Religion Clauses scholar but I know enough to know that Religion Clause jurisprudence is kind of a mess. Enough of a mess that I wouldn't put money down on how these challenges turn out. Still, because the religious organizations challenging the test-or-vaccine mandate fit into the world of nonprofits, it's worth keeping an eye on how these challenges turn out.
Thursday, October 14, 2021
An article in today's Religion News Service reports that the most recent round of the Faith Communities Today survey (FACT), found a median decline in worship attendance of 7% between 2015 and 2020. What is also quite interesting is that the survey period ended before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new survey of 15,278 religious congregations across the United States confirms trends sociologists have documented for several decades: Congregational life across the country is shrinking.
According to RNS,
The survey, fielded just before the coronavirus lockdown, finds that half of the country’s estimated 350,000 religious congregations had 65 or fewer people in attendance on any given weekend. That’s a drop of more than half from a median attendance level of 137 people in 2000, the first year the FACT survey gathered data.
Scott Thurman, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and the survey’s author, had this to say: “The dramatically increasing number of congregations below 65 attendees with a continued rate of decline should be cause for concern among religious communities.”
Produced by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the FACT survey consists of self-reported questionnaires sent out to congregational leaders every five years since 2000 — mostly through 20 collaborating denominations and faith traditions. According to RNS, the most recent survey found that mainline Protestants suffered the greatest decline over the past five years (12.5%), with a median of 50 people attending worship in 2020. Evangelical congregations declined at a slower rate (5.4%) over the same five-year period and had a median attendance of 65 people at worship. Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches declined by 9%. The only groups to boost attendance over the past five years were non-Christian congregations: Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish.
The survey found that half of the nation’s congregations were in the South, even though only 38% of the U.S. population lives there. It also suggested that small congregations in rural areas and small towns may be unsustainable. Nearly half of the country’s congregations are in rural areas (25%) or small towns (22%), while the 2020 census found that only 6% of Americans live in rural areas and 8% in small towns.
One bright spot in the study is this: Congregations are becoming more racially diverse. In 2000 only 12% of congregations were multiracial. In the latest survey, the figure climbed to 25%.
The survey defined multiracial congregations as those where 20% or more of participants are not part of the dominant racial group.
Many researchers are now investigating if racial diversity also equals integration in relationships — or if people are simply attending church together. Previous research has also found increased diversity is one-directional.
“It’s still in the direction of predominantly white churches becoming less predominantly white, said Chaves. “It’s very little in the other direction. There’s not a big increase in diversity in predominantly Black churches.”
Professor Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
A couple weeks ago, a California federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by James Huntsman against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The suit got a reasonable amount of attention in my (Mormon, legal) circles, and seems to have gotten a fair amount of play in Utah, for two reasons. One is that it involved the Mormon church and a mall (more on that in a minute). The second was, it involved James Huntsman, brother of former (among other things) Utah governor Jon Huntsman and part of the prominent-within-the-Mormon-church Huntsman family.[fn1]
And what was his suit? In short, Huntsman was suing for the return of a couple decades' worth of tithing he had paid into the church.
As we all know, unless you make a restricted gift to a charity, the general rule is that once you make a charitable contribution, the money is out of your hands. If you don't like what the charity does with the money, you take your charitable deduction and you stop donating to that charity going forward. But you can't get your unrestricted donations back. (And in case it doesn't go without saying, tithing payments are unrestricted gifts.)
Thursday, September 9, 2021
Writing for today's edition of Religion News Service (RNS) news, Kathryn Post states that the Supreme Court’s August 26 decision to end the federal eviction moratorium brings new challenges for religious leaders and organizations working to aid those at risk for homelessness. Post cites to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicating that more than 3.6 million Americans say they could face eviction in the next two months.
This startling statistic has brought the following response from Sarah Abramson, vice president of strategy and impact at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston: "We’re very, very nervous. There is already a tremendous housing shortage in Boston. And we know from our data, and from the experience of our partners who do this work, just how difficult it was for somebody who has been evicted in the past to get housing.”
Jerrel T. Gilliam, executive director of Light of Life Rescue Mission in Pittsburgh, also shared concerns: “We are going to need to be very creative, and to think outside the box in order to prepare for what could be a potential onslaught of people needing assistance in a short amount of time.”
In its August 26 decision, the Court ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacked the authority to establish a federal eviction moratorium. According to the Court, such a moratorium requires congressional approval. The decision comes as renters and landlords face a backlog of promised funds. According to Census Bureau data, the government has thus far distributed only about $5.1 billion of the $46.5 billion in federal rental assistance funds intended to prevent eviction.
“We definitely have to work hard to make sure that money reaches people,” said Shams DaBaron, a New York activist who also goes by “Da Homeless Hero.” “We have to cover both sides: these small landlords that need it, and those who are extremely poor.”
DaBaron is currently living in an apartment with the support of a voucher program, but he says the city is behind on three months of rent. An eviction moratorium is one measure that can help buy more time while such funds face bureaucratic delays.
DaBaron gained national attention as unofficial spokesperson for the residents of the Lucerne, a hotel-turned-shelter during the pandemic in Manhattan’s Upper West Side that became the center of New York’s “homeless hotel” debate. When he was not advocating for his fellow residents, DaBaron partnered with local group Open Hearts to develop a program called Soulful Walk and Talks. The program provided hotel shelter residents the opportunity to walk to the nearby Riverside Park with local faith leaders from a range of religious traditions who provided a safe space for spiritual reflection.
“We didn’t want to make it a religious thing, but we understand the value of spirit, of soul, of that deep essence within everybody,” said DaBaron. “One of the things that came out of it, from talking to many of the faith leaders, is that many of them were transformed, just as many of us were transformed.”
“It was definitely very impactful,” said Rabbi Lauren Herrmann of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, who joined in the Walk and Talks and organized other clergy participants. “For one thing, I really understood for the first time in my life the issues surrounding the shelter system, and why people choose to be on the streets instead of being in shelters. … The shelter system is deeply broken, and some of the stories I heard were deeply upsetting.”
Herrmann and DaBaron see the Soulful Walk and Talks as tending to the essential spiritual needs of those facing homelessness. They hope to continue and expand the program as the federal eviction moratorium lifts. Yet, DaBaron and Herrmann also pointed to structural changes that need to take place. New York state implemented a new eviction moratorium on Sept. 1 that extends until January 2022. However, the moratorium does not address the city’s lack of affordable housing, the income cliffs that foster dependence on government programs and the health and safety risks facing those in congregate shelters, where many former Lucerne residents are finding themselves since the hotel shelter closed this summer.
In Pittsburgh, Light of Life Rescue Mission takes a multifaceted approach to homelessness by providing a range of services including case management, education, unemployment services and accommodations for those facing housing insecurity.
Gilliam, the Christian organization’s executive director, is concerned the end of the eviction moratorium will mean a sudden, sharp increase in the number of residents facing evictions. At one point during the pandemic, evictions in Pittsburgh slowed to a complete halt — in a typical year, according to Gilliam, Pittsburgh sees 14,000 evictions.
Gilliam suggested implementing preventive measures that would allow landlords to receive rent payments while enabling those at risk for evictions to find suitable housing.
“We’re pleading with everyone,” said Gilliam. “Let’s try to get people help while they’re still in the home and help the landlord have another month or two of rent, so that we can find a place for them without them having to pass through homelessness to get assistance.”
The pandemic has not been as kind to all religious organizations working to serve those facing housing insecurity. Chaplain Asma Inge-Hanif, founder and executive director of Muslimat Al Nisaa, has been serving the Baltimore community for 30 years. The organization provides health, education and social services to all, regardless of their ability to pay, and its Home Shelter is especially designed to meet the needs of Muslim women. She says her organization has served thousands of people over the years.
In the last year and a half, Inge-Hanif almost died from COVID-19 and lost her organization’s signature location. “I couldn’t pay the rent anymore, even though they claim there was an eviction moratorium,” she said. Now, Inge-Hanif is working to keep the shelter open on a small scale so she can help meet housing needs, especially those of people arriving from Afghanistan.
“I’m getting so many requests all the time from people who are getting evicted,” she said. “It’s often people who have no status and people of color. Everyday I get seven to 10 requests for shelter and housing. And I can’t help them.”
As the federal eviction moratorium ends, Inge-Hanif is hoping to raise money for an apartment building so she can house more people. She also says governments need to make rental assistance and other services more accessible.
“That’s why people are being evicted. They can’t get through the paperwork,” said Inge-Hanif. “The people who need the help are not in a position to maneuver through all the red tape. … The way the system is set up prevents the people who are most in need from actualizing success and being self-sufficient.”
That, indeed, appears to be the sad truth.
Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law
Friday, July 30, 2021
White House Announces New Religions Affairs Leaders, Including First Islamic Religious Freedom Ambassador
The White House announced Friday (July 30) a slate of nominations and appointments for top religious affairs roles, including the first Muslim American nominated to be the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
According to a report by the Religious News Service (RNS), President Biden will select Rashad Hussain as his nominee for that post, filling a State Department slot vacant since former Kansas governor and U.S. Senator Sam Brownback left at the close of the Trump administration. Hussain, who would need to be confirmed by the Senate, currently works as director for Partnerships and Global Engagement at the National Security Council.
Mr. Hussain previously served as White House counsel under President Barack Obama, as well as U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and U.S. special envoy for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, among other roles.
Commenting on the upcoming nomination, Saeed Khan, an expert on American Muslim communities at Wayne State University, stated: “Rashad’s appointment demonstrates not only the importance the Biden administration places on religious freedom, it also shows the importance of the Muslim world to the administration both in terms of combatting Islamophobia and also promoting religious freedom in Muslim majority countries. Rashad’s background will allow him to have a frank discussion with Muslim majority countries about religious freedom.”
Anila Ali, a co-founder of the American Muslims and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council Iftar who has worked with Hussain in the past, also celebrated his nomination. “As AMMWEC, and as a woman leader, I look forward to working with him because women play an important role in peace-making,” Ali said. “He has worked with Muslim communities during the Obama period and we hope his relevant experience is going to make him a voice for all of us.”
According to the RNS report, President Biden is also expected to nominate Deborah Lipstadt as the next U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. Lipstadt is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and a prominent Holocaust historian. She is the author of Antisemitism: Here and Now and is known for successfully defeating a libel suit brought against her by Holocaust denier David Irving.
Commenting on the expected nomination of Prof. Lipstadt, Mark (Moishe) Bane, president of the Orthodox Union, had this to say: “She is a leader with great moral courage; her dedicated work, clear voice in fighting Holocaust denial and preserving the memory of the attempted destruction of the Jewish people make her an exemplary choice for this role.”
In addition, President Biden plans to appoint two new commissioners to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Khizr Khan and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum.
Khan became famous in 2016 when he and his wife, Ghazala, spoke during the Democratic National Convention as “Gold Star” parents, discussing their son, Humayun, a U.S. Army captain who died in Iraq in 2004. Mr. Khan, the founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Project, runs his own law practice and has authored three books, including This is Our Constitution: Discover America with a Gold Star Father.
Kleinbaum, for her part, already served as a USCIRF commissioner in 2020 and leads the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, a community that centers LGBTQ people. A human rights advocate, she also sits on Mayor de Blasio’s Faith Based Advisory Council and serves on New York City’s Commission on Human Rights. In addition, she is a board member of the New York Jewish Agenda and the New Israel Fund.
Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law
Tuesday, April 20, 2021
The faculty of Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school associated with the Free Methodist Church, has taken a vote of no confidence in its board of trustees after members of the board declined to change its policy prohibiting the hiring of LGBTQ people.
The no-confidence vote, approved by 72% of the faculty Monday (April 20), was the latest in a series of escalating clashes between faculty, students and the school’s governing board. Faculty and students also want the school to drop its statement on human sexuality, which declares marriage between a man and a woman as the only permitted expression of human sexuality. A total of 213 out of 236 qualified faculty voted no confidence on an online form.
The board of trustees responded to the no-confidence vote Tuesday with a statement saying it would not change its employment hiring policy, which excludes LGBTQ people from full-time positions.
The statement read in part:
The board recognizes that fellow Christians and other community members disagree in good faith on issues relating to human sexuality, and that these convictions are deeply and sincerely held,” read the statement. “We pray that as we live within the tension of this issue, we can be in dialogue with the SPU community.
The board also indicated it was taking its stand because it wanted to continue to maintain its ties to the Free Methodist Church, a small denomination of about 70,000 in the United States and 1 million around the world. The Free Methodist Church has eight affiliated educational institutions including Azusa Pacific, Spring Arbor and Greenville universities.
Kevin Neuhouser, a professor of sociology at Seattle Pacific who is also the faculty advisor for HAVEN, the student club for LGBTQ students on campus, opined that “Right now the board is the last remaining group that has not yet come to recognize that LGBTQ individuals can be faithful Christians, and as faculty and staff they would play positive roles on our campus, if we can hire them.” According to Neuhousser, the school was engaged in a larger discussion of trying to discern what it means to follow Jesus. But, he asked, “Is it being faithful to include or exclude?”
Nationwide, a group of students and former students of Christian institutions are seeking an answer to that question. Last month, 33 LGBTQ students or former students at federally funded Christian colleges and universities filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education alleging widespread discrimination at 25 Christian colleges and universities.
We shall follow closely as this case winds its way through the court system.
Vaughn E. James, Professor of Law, Texas Tech University School of Law
Thursday, January 21, 2021
The Washington Post reports that Joseph Biden, the second-ever Roman Catholic U.S. president, was greeted on his Inauguration Day with contrasting messages from his church: A warm blessing from Pope Francis — and a statement by the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops saying that Biden “will advance moral evils,” including contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage.
The statement by Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez immediately set off a debate among U.S. bishops, who, like U.S. Catholics, are bitterly divided on the direction of their extensive denomination and its entanglement with partisan politics. Those divisions are coming to a head in the figure of Biden, who makes it clear with his weekly churchgoing, his frequent references to Catholic teachings and culture, and his use of Catholic symbols that he is indeed a part of the church.
The current dispute over how to contend with the new president features dueling comments from leading bishops.
On one hand, Archbishop Gomez stated:
In a time of growing and aggressive secularism in American culture, when religious believers face many challenges, it will be refreshing to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions. I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, rejects this thinking:
Today, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an ill-considered statement on the day of President Biden’s inauguration. Aside from the fact that there is seemingly no precedent for doing so, the statement, critical of President Biden came as a surprise to many bishops, who received it just hours before it was released. The internal institutional failures involved must be addressed, and I look forward to contributing to all efforts to that end, so that, inspired by the Gospel, we can build up the unity of the Church, and together take up the work of healing our nation in this moment of crisis.
The Catholic Bishops have in the past taken a more positive and collaborative tone towards new presidents. For example, in 2016, the conference put out a statement congratulating Donald Trump, saying it “looks forward to working with President-elect Trump to protect human life from its most vulnerable beginning to its natural end.”
San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy said he was “echoing Pope Francis’ message to President Biden and calling for dialogue, not judgment; collaboration, not isolation; truth in charity, not harshness. … It is a pathway of reconciliation that places the healing of our society ahead of any specific policy issue, in the recognition that repairing the soul of our country is the pre-requisite for any sustainable effort to advance the common good. … Most importantly of all, Pope Francis’ message to President Biden fundamentally speaks to him in his humanity, a man of Catholic faith striving to serve his nation and his God.”
On Wednesday morning, President Biden received a message from the Pope: “Under your leadership, may the American people continue to draw strength from the lofty political, ethical and religious values that have inspired the nation since its founding,” said Francis, who had called Biden on Nov. 12 to offer his congratulations and to discuss working together on issues including poverty, climate change and integrating immigrants and refugees.
Thursday morning, the USCCB put out four statements — an unusually busy morning for the Conference — praising actions Biden took the day before, including lifting the Muslim ban, and fortifying the “Dreamers” program that allows young immigrants to stay in the U.S. for work and school.
Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University
Friday, October 30, 2020
With the presidential election less than a week away, politics is never far from anyone’s mind: that would seem to include organizations that, strictly speaking, are expected to avoid the political arena. The Falkirk Center, a subsidiary think tank of conservative private nonprofit Liberty University, recently featured an advertisement showing President Trump amid a closely-gathered group of people in the Oval Office, heads bowed in prayer. Alongside the picture appears text quoting Scripture and the phrase “Pray for our President.”
The Falkirk Center is organized under Liberty University’s 501(c)(3) charter granting the group tax exemption: language used by the IRS unambiguously forbids such organizations 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.” To violate the IRS’ rule is a risky proposition for any tax-exempt organization, as its puts their tax exemption at risk: on the whole, however, it appears that the Falkirk Center’s advertisements fall on the right side of the tax code’s bright red line. An Inside Higher Ed piece reporting on the potential tax implications of the advertisements pointed to a statement by a Liberty spokesman stating that the Bible calls for believers to pray for kings and authority figures in order to secure peace for all, regardless of which political party that leader hails from. “[Expert] consensus,” says the article, “was that the ads push the envelope but probably don’t cross into being ‘functionally equivalent to express advocacy,’ which would make them electioneering and out of bounds for a 501(c)(3).” While Liberty University’s advertising practices may be safe from the IRS’ wrath, it has drawn sharp criticism from a number of academics and other nonprofits: to assess these viewpoints, see the Inside Higher Ed article analyzing the advertisement here.
David Brennen, Professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law
Thursday, September 26, 2019
While the recent House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee hearing focused on whether current tax benefits provided to charities also subsidize hate speech, readers may remember that a different controversy arose a couple of years ago when several groups identified as "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed lawsuits challenging that identification. Federal district courts recently dismissed two of those lawsuits, one against SPLC and the other against Amazon for using the SPLC labels.
In Center for Immigration Studies v. Cohen et al., the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) filed suit against two SPLC leaders, Richard Cohen (now former SPLC President) and Heidi Beirich (currently SPLC Intelligence Project Director), alleging a RICO violation. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the lawsuit earlier this month, concluding that "plaintiff has
not sufficiently alleged a predicate offense or a pattern of racketeering." More specifically, the court found that while SPLC's designation of CIS as a hate group was "debatable" under the facts alleged in the complaint, it was not fraudulent and so did not constitute wire fraud, the asserted RICO predicate offense. The court also found that the complaint only alleged a single scheme, which was insufficient to constitute a pattern of racketeering.
Coverage: Yahoo! News.
In Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc., d/b/a James Kennedy Ministries v. Amazon.com, Inc. et al., the nonprofit (Coral Ridge) sued not only SPLC but also Amazon.com, Inc. and AmazonSmile Foundation because they allegedly excluded Coral Ridge from receiving donations through the AmazonSmile charitable-giving program because of the SPLC's "hate group" designation. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama in a lengthy opinion dismissed the lawsuit earlier this month for several reasons. First, the court dismissed the state defamation claim and federal Lanham Act claims against SPLC because it concluded that Coral Ridge was a public figure (which Coral Ridge conceded) and given the debatable meaning of the term hate group Coral Ridge could not prove it was false as assigned to Coral Ridge, much less that the designation actually was false, or that SPLC had made the designation with actual malice, as required under the First Amendment for the claims to be sustained. (The court also rejected the Lanham Act claims on statutory grounds.) Second, the court dismissed the Civil Rights Act Title II claims of religious discrimination against the Amazon defendants. While the court found that whether the Amazon defendants were places of public accommodation within the meaning of Title II to be a difficult issue of first impression, it ultimately did not reach that issue. Instead, it concluded that even if they were places of public accommodation the denial of Coral Ridge's ability to receive donations through the AmazonSmile program was not a denial of "goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, [or] accommodations" within the meaning of Title II because the AmazonSmile program is not open to the public because the program is limited to certain section 501(c)(3) organizations. The court also concluded that Coral Ridge failed to plead sufficient facts to support either a claim of intentional discrimination or a claim of disparate impact on religious or Christian groups.
Monday, July 22, 2019
Over the past several years, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been litigating over the constitutionality of the parsonage allowance. (The parsonage allowance, codified in section 107 of the Code, provides that "ministers of the gospel" can exclude in-kind housing or cash housing allowances from their income.)
In March, the Seventh Circuit ruled against FFRF, holding that tax-free housing allowances available exclusively to clergy didn't violate the Establishment Clause. Then, a month ago or so, FFRF announced that it wouldn't seek review by the Supreme Court.
But the battle isn't over, it turns out. Last week, the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix announced that it was going to challenge the constitutionality of the parsonage allowance.
The article doesn't provide a ton of details, but it looks to me like it's going to follow the FFRF's playbook by designating a portion of its executives' salary as a housing allowance. (Note that, contrary to its assertion, the Humanist Society wouldn't claim any kind of exemption: the exemption belongs to the minister.) Because the Humanist Society is both a nonprofit and tax-exempt, it's in a similar position to FFRF vis-à-vis the parsonage allowance.
I assume that it believes that the IRS will reject the claim, giving it standing to challenge the provision's constitutionality in court.
I've said before that I'm not completely convinced that this grants standing, the Seventh Circuit notwithstanding. Even if it does, though, the Humanist Society may face hurdles not faced by the FFRF. Specifically, according to the article, leaders of the Humanist Society are broadly recognized as clergy. By contrast, the FFRF expressly denied by religious or quasi-religious, and rejected the IRS's assertion that maybe its executives were clergy. Because the Humanist executives are recognized as clergy, it's not clear to me that they don't qualify as "ministers of the gospel" for purposes of section 107. And, if they qualify as clergy, they're going to have a hard time getting standing to challenge the allowance.
Samuel D. Brunson
Thursday, June 27, 2019
President Trump talked about the so called "Johnson Amendment" again the other day. The Johnson Amendment, as probably most of the readers of this blog know, is the language contained in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code that prohibits a charity hoping to maintain its status as exempt from federal income tax from intervening in any political campaign. I say so called as it was not called that on its entry to the Code, though this article does suggest it was LBJ who was the author of the language added to the Code in 1954.
The President, speaking before the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington stated: “Our pastors, our ministers, our priests, our rabbis . . . [are] allowed to speak again . . . allowed to talk without having to lose your tax exemption, your tax status, and being punished for speaking." He then apparently jokingly cautioned that if a pastor spoke against him “we’ll bring back that Johnson Amendment so fast,” the president said to laughter, adding, “I’m only kidding.”
President Trump signed an executive order back in May. The law of course is still found within section 501(c)(3) and thus is a duly enforceable law. In my opinion, the executive order did not do anything to change the actual state of affairs of the meaning of the law or its interaction with other laws, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or constitutional rights. If anything, the current state of the law should work to protect those he jokingly threatened to use the state of the law against.
The news article I cite to above unfortunately wrongly states the following: "The president has not undone the law, like he sometimes claims he has, but rather told the Treasury Department it can enforce at its own discretion — leaving the possibility that the Trump administration could only penalize churches that oppose the president."
Although the President has not undone the law, as the article correctly states, I say wrongly in two senses: (1) he has not told the Treasury Department that it can enforce at its own discretion - he only directs Treasury to apply the law with due regard to allowing individuals and organizations to speak when speaking from a religious perspective "where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign", and (2) it would be unlawful for the administration to penalize churches that oppose the president, and his executive order did not create that possibility of such unlawful action. If you have interest in more detail on the (obvious) legal problems associated with (2), I wrote about the legal reasons why it would be unlawful for the IRS to unequally enforce the law in such a way in a longer scholarly article here considering the claims that the IRS violated conservative organizations rights when it specifically used names of groups like the Tea Party in managing its application system.
Thursday, June 20, 2019
This month brought us the spectacle of a televangelist awkwardly trying to explain why he has to fly in a private jet and a report that a Catholic bishop gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts to fellow clergymen, with his diocese increasing his compensation to cover the value of the gifts. The latter story came from a leaked draft confidential report to the Vatican that led to the Bishop's resignation last fall. And the latter story also led to a call in the Washington Examiner from the head of the Center for a Free Economy for an IRS audit of the Catholic Church and in the Washington Post for churches to have to file Form 990, the IRS annual information return that almost all other tax-exempt organizations are required to file (although for financially smaller organizations shorter versions of the form are usually sufficient).
This raises a perennial issue that understandably never gains any political traction - should churches have to file some version of the Form 990, say a Form 990-CH, to allow the IRS and the public to see whether they continue to qualify for the tax benefits they enjoy? It seems unlikely that the occasional financial scandal or lavish spending by a church leader will be enough to change the political calculation that pursuing this idea legislatively is a fast way for a member of Congress to alienate many of their constituents. Nor is it obvious that the arguably rare incidents along these lines should be the basis for this change and the encroachment on church internal affairs that it would represent. However, as the proportion of Americans who associate with a formal religious organization continues to decline - including not just the "nones" but also people who consider themselves religious but do not engage with the institutional church - it should not be taken for granted that this exemption from the annual return requirement will always be invulnerable to attack. And of course there is the little matter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation's lawsuit challenging the exemption, although I would not give the lawsuit much chance of success, in part for the reasons provided by fellow blogger Sam Brunson.
Friday, May 17, 2019
Jianlin Chen (University of Melbourne) and Junyu Loveday Liu (London School of Economics & Political Science; K&L Gates) have published Managing Religious Competition in China: Regulating Provisions of Charitable Activities by Religious Organizations, in Regulating Religion in Asia: Norms, Modes and Challenges (Cambridge University Press 2019). Here is the abstract:
Drawing on the Law & Religious Market theory, this Chapter utilizes the case study ofChina to explain 1) how regulation of ostensibly non-economically motivated activities(i.e., religion and charity) can be properly conceived as a form of market regulation; and, 2) how such a conception can add a valuable dimension to the discourse. In particular, this Chapter situates China’s regulation of charitable activities by religious organizationsin the context of recent major legal reform on charity law and highlights the contradictory treatment where, on one hand, the law recognizes the self-interested motivation of participants and donors of charitable activities and accommodates their co-opting of charitable activities to promote or advance commercial interests but, on the other hand, specifically prohibits religious organizations from any religiouspropagation during provisions of charitable services. This Chapter argues that from the perspective of market regulation, such denial of religious “self-interest” hampers the purported policy objectives of promoting greater religious participation in charitableactivities but may be justified on the grounds that it promotes religious competition that is normatively desirable.
Thursday, March 28, 2019
Church Tax Benefits: Does 7th Circuit Ruling on Cash Parsonage Allowance Exclusion Protect Other Church-Specific Benefits?
In a much anticipated decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit concluded that the exclusion from gross income of cash parsonage allowances under Internal Revenue Code section 107(2) is constitutional, reversing a federal district court decision to the contrary. (Full disclosure: I signed an amicus brief arguing that the provision is constitutional.) Since the decision leaves the exclusion in place and there are no contrary federal appellate court decisions, it is highly unlikely that the Supreme Court will take up the case even if the plaintiffs file a cert petition. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which instigated the challenge, or others could of course try to raise this issue in a different circuit in order to try to create a circuit split, especially since the plaintiffs here managed to overcome the standing issue that had frustrated an earlier challenge. At least one panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit indicated in an earlier case an interest in reaching the constitutional issue by appointing an amicus law professor who was skeptical of the provision's constitutionality (an issue that had not been raised by any party in that case). But such a split is likely years down the road, if it ever materializes.
A larger question is whether the decision provides broader protection for other tax benefits provided to churches, other religious groups, and ministers. Perhaps the most important holdings of the court in this respect are its conclusion that Congress had the secular purpose of avoiding excessive entanglement with religion when it enacted the provision (citing Taxing the Church, authored by Edward Zelinsky (Cardozo), on this point), its narrow reading of the Supreme Court's Texas Monthly decision as part of its reasoning for why the primary effect of section 107(2) is not to advance religion, and its stated deference to Congress in determining whether the provision causes excessive government entanglement with religion. (These conclusions reflect the much criticized by still applicable Lemon test.) These conclusions are not accepted by all; for a thoughtful critique of them, see this TaxProf Blog op-ed by Adam Chodorow (Arizona State), who argued against the constitutionality of section 107(2). And of course the decision only directly applies to that provision and is only precedential in the Seventh Circuit. But they likely foreshadow a difficult path for any other challenges to tax benefits enjoyed by religious groups or ministers, including the exemption from the annual information return filing requirement for churches currently being challenged by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (in the District of Columbia, not the Seventh Circuit).
Monday, January 28, 2019
Allison M. Whelan (Covington & Burling, Washington D.C), Denying Tax-Exempt Status to Discriminatory Private Adoption Agencies, 8 UC Irvine L. Rev. 711 (2018):
This Article ... argues that the established public policy at issue here is the best interests of the child, which includes the importance of ensuring that children have safe, permanent homes. In light of this established public policy, which all three branches of the federal government have recognized and support, this Article ultimately argues that, consistent with the holding in Bob Jones, private adoption agencies that refuse to facilitate adoptions by same-sex parents, thereby narrowing the pool of qualified prospective parents and reducing the number of children who are adopted, act contrary to the established public policy of acting in the best interests of the child.
This Article proceeds in five Parts. Part I first provides general information about the child welfare system, adoption, private adoption agencies, and the “best interests of the child” standard. Part II describes the emergence of state laws that allow private agencies to refuse to facilitate adoption by same-sex couples. Part III provides an overview of federal income tax exemptions and then summarizes the Supreme Court’s decision in Bob Jones University v. United States. Part IV applies the analysis and holdings of Bob Jones to private adoption agencies that discriminate against same-sex couples, and ultimately argues that such policies are contrary to the established public policy of the best interests of the child. As a result, this Article argues that the IRS should conclude that these agencies do not qualify for exemption from federal income tax. Part V concludes by offering a potential compromise and additional policies the government should consider.
(Hat tip: TaxProfBlog )
Friday, November 2, 2018
The Catholic Church is coping with mass tort liability for sexual abuse of children by priests. Since 2004, eighteen Catholic organizations have filed for relief in bankruptcy. Fifteen debtors emerged from bankruptcy after settling with sexual abuse claimants and insurers. During settlement negotiations, sexual abuse claimants and debtors clashed over the extent of the debtors’ property and ability to pay claims. Although such disputes are common in chapter 11 plan negotiations, the Catholic cases required the parties and bankruptcy courts to account for unique religious attributes of Catholic debtors. This article reviews the arguments and outcomes on property issues based on reported decisions, pleadings, plans, and disclosure statements. It explains the key characteristics of Catholic dioceses under canon and secular organization law and the bankruptcy contexts in which these characteristics became hot button issues. It offers an analysis of the legacy of the Catholic cases for bankruptcy law, religious liberty, and for the relationships among entities within a Catholic diocese.
Thursday, October 25, 2018
Columbia Law School Professor Philip Hamburger is a prodigious and iconoclastic legal scholar. ... Hamburger’s latest subject, in Liberal Suppression ([University of Chicago Press] 2018), is an inquiry into the legitimacy of restrictions on the political speech of non-profit organizations. Section 501(c)(3) exempts religious, educational, and charitable organizations from federal income tax but denies them this exemption if they engage in campaign speech for or against any candidate for public office or devote a substantial part of their activities to propaganda or other attempts to influence legislation. Section 170(c) makes contributions to qualifying non-profits tax-deductible to the donor. According to Hamburger, these exemptions and deductions amount to “many billions of dollars annually.”
Most people’s knee-jerk reaction is that section 501(c)(3)’s restrictions are justified by the tax-exempt status such non-profit organizations applied for and received. Rejecting such preconceptions in his trademark fashion, Hamburger strongly disagrees. Although non-profits are free to express a wide range of opinions—even political opinions—outside of political contests, Hamburger views section 501(c)(3) as “an extraordinary abridgement of an essential freedom,” which ought to be considered unconstitutional. Inasmuch as the Supreme Court has unanimously upheld the lobbying restrictions in section 501(c)(3), Liberal Suppression is nothing if not ambitious, but is it persuasive? Realizing that his arguments may appear to be an “uphill struggle,” early on Hamburger asks readers to “hold their skepticism in abeyance.”
After reading the book, my skepticism remains stubbornly intact.
Hamburger reminds the reader that from colonial times until the amendment of section 501(c)(3) in 1934 (and further tightening in 1954, and again in 1987), which imposed the restrictions he finds objectionable, American clergy actively participated in politics from the pulpit. The timing of the 1934 and 1954 restrictions, he points out, coincides with a period of “liberal” anti-Catholic sentiment in America. The principal culprits in Hamburger’s tale are nativists such as Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard Hiram Evans and then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who faced a Catholic opponent in the 1954 senatorial primary. Hamburger portrays them as the instigators of section 501(c)(3)’s “oppressive” political restrictions. ...
Does section 501(c)(3) “threaten the core of most First Amendment freedoms,” as Hamburger claims? Liberal Suppression, despite its undeniable erudition and interesting digressions into American political (and theological) thought and historical asides, falls short of making a compelling case. Hamburger is likewise unconvincing in his attempt to make a connection between the restrictions in section 501(c)(3) and contemporary forms of censorship such as campus speech codes. While Hamburger’s theoretical arguments seem to miss their mark, they are always engaging and sometimes contains gems like this:
"American religion has increasingly been aligned with popular liberal and progressive opinion—even to the point of looking for salvation not in another world but in this one, and not so much from God as from democratic government."
My new book, Liberal Suppression, argues that section 501(c)(3)’s speech restrictions are prejudiced and unconstitutional. These conclusions run counter to widespread assumptions, and it is therefore understandable that Mark Pulliam and other thoughtful readers find them difficult to stomach. All the same, it is important at least to come to grips with the realities that underlie the book’s conclusions, and Pulliam’s review fails to do this. To evaluate the prejudice, one must understand its nature; and to judge the constitutional arguments, one must recognize their breadth and strength.
The prejudice underlying section 501(c)(3) arose from theologically liberal anxieties about the speech of churches. And as traced by my book, the prejudice gradually expanded into a broader liberal fear about the speech of all sort of idealistic organizations. Indeed, these liberal concerns have expanded to include fears about the orthodox or stereotypical speech of individuals. It is therefore disappointing that Pulliam reduces my account of prejudice to a simplistic complaint about narrow anti-Catholicism.
My book, in his view, argues that section 501(c)(3) speech restrictions were added “in order to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church.” Certainly, anti-Catholicism was the opening wedge. But as my book repeatedly emphasizes, the relevant prejudices were not narrowly anti-Catholic. Already in the early nineteenth, they were broadened out to take aim at business corporations, and in the strain that is central to my book, they soon reached not only churches—Protestant as well as Catholic—but also the full range of churchy organizations, including eventually all sort of idealistic groups that were not religious. ...
[T]he prejudiced sentiment about the speech of ecclesiastical and other idealistic organizations is painfully evident in section 501(c)(3). Pulliam protests that I have not shown this. Well, consider just one phrase—the section’s limit on “carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation.” Those words were no accident. They came directly out of nativist literature—a literature that, again, reached across much of American society, from KKK klaverns to Ivy League philosophy departments. Once more, the low and the high had more in common than the latter wanted to acknowledge.
Pulliam’s review, in short, recognizes neither the broad character of the prejudice nor its societal depth. And in taking a confined view of both, he misunderstands the antagonisms that underlay section 501(c)(3) and still undergird a host of other speech restrictions. ...
Tax lawyers and First Amendment lawyers tend to have very different sensibilities about the speech restrictions. Tax lawyers usually observe that churches etc. are only slightly quieted down, for they can convey their messages through auxiliary organizations, such as section 501(c)(4) organizations and section 527 PACs. First Amendment doctrine, however, treats even the slightest restriction on political speech with apprehension. And the freedom of speech is not merely the freedom to have one’s message come out of someone else’s mouth; most basically it is the freedom to speak—to speak through one’s own mouth, in one’s own voice.
Unlike Pulliam, most Americans, on both sides of the issue, understand that section 501(c)(3) matters for speech. It is the only subsection of the Internal Revenue Code that is widely known—even by its section number—and that is no accident. The whole point of the section’s speech restrictions was to satisfy deeply felt theo-political anxieties about speech—anxieties that remain pervasive. And this is why so many Americans care. Whether they like or fear the speech of ecclesiastical and other idealistic organizations, they understand that section 501(c)(3) chills such groups.
[Hat tip: TaxProf Blog]