Friday, September 22, 2006

The 501(c)3 Church: a Creature of the State?

The following is an excerpt from “501 (c)3: Is it worth it?” by Russ Jones, editor/publisher of the Colorado Springs Chronicle, September 2006.

Two primary institutions built the American Republic: the Christian family and the colonial pulpit. From America’s founding days in Plymouth and Jamestown and well into the 19th century, families gathered in their local congregations to hear sermons before selecting its civil leaders. The preacher would extol the duties of the magistrate before the Lord, and the criterion whereby citizens may select such men for office. These messages were called Election Day sermons. They were the vehicle whereby the local church communicated to the Christian people of the land the God-ordained vision for selecting as leaders only those men who fear the Lord.

But recently, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has been warning churches and nonprofit organizations that improper campaigning in the upcoming political season could endanger their tax-exempt status. In notices to more than 15,000 tax-exempt organizations [and] numerous church denominations, the agency has detailed its new enforcement program, called the Political Activity Compliance Initiative. Under the initiative, the IRS plans to expedite investigations into claims of improper campaigning, no longer waiting for an annual tax return to be filed or the tax year to end before launching a probe.

“The rule against political campaign intervention by charities and churches is long established,” IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said in a statement. “We are stepping up our efforts to enforce it.”

Recently, OMB Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit government watchdog group, issued a report criticizing the IRS enforcement program and said the program could prompt retaliatory and harassment complaints unless the agency develops clear guidelines. “I don’t think this is a case of bad faith,” said Kay Guinane, author of the report. “I just think it’s a poorly structured program.”

The Internal Revenue Service, however, has assumed the role of monitoring what houses of worship say. In 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson sought a legislative route to silence some of his anticommunist critics. Encouraged by Johnson, the U.S. Senate passed a major tax-code revision by a voice vote. Although Johnson’s revision was targeted specifically at nonprofit groups that were contesting his seat, churches—which also are nonprofit organizations—fell under the little-noticed new tax code provisions. The code barred all tax-exempt groups—including churches—from participating in political activities. The penalty: loss of tax-exempt status. Some would say a heavy price to pay for exercising their free speech rights.

In Bob Jones University v. United States (461 U.S. 574), the U.S. Supreme Court noted the following about the government’s intended purpose for the 501c3:

The Court asserts that an exempt organization must “be in harmony with the public interest,” must have a purpose that comports with “the community conscience,” and must not act in a manner “affirmatively at odds with [the] declared purposes of the whole Government.” Taken together, these phrases suggest that “the primary function of a tax-exempt organization is to act on behalf of the Government in carrying out governmentally approved policies.”

While it may be appropriate for many nonprofit organizations to waive their right to intervene in political campaigns, or influence legislation, is this the right thing for a church to do?

Many believe waiving such rights is to waive one’s freedom of speech. Waiving one’s right to influence legislation is especially problematic. The inevitable result has been that the church has abandoned its responsibility to influence its elected representatives to craft legislation that is biblical and that comports with the Constitution. Many would say the unchurched, and even those who are openly hostile to the church, have taken over that influence and are now seeing to it that their legislators craft statutes which are unbiblical, immoral, and unconstitutional.

John Adams stated while he was president, “The church is the moral compass of society.” But in order to remain a true and faithful compass, the church must remain separate and independent of the influences of that society, particularly its civil government. It must be a “free church.” Should the church become subordinate, or in any way controlled or co-opted by the civil government (a “state-church” system), it can no longer effectively serve as that society’s moral compass.

State-church systems are inevitably compromised and governed by pragmatism, rather than genuine Christian faithfulness. It should surprise no one that the 501c3 church in America has lost its prophetic voice, has lost the respect it once held, and is no longer “the moral compass of society.”

Churches are not required to register as 501c3 organizations, though many of them do. Some say pastors today have become silent in matters of political and social issues for fear of losing the church’s tax-exempt status.

Mr. Jones concludes his article with the following questions:

1) Does taking a deduction for supporting God’s work pervert our reason for giving?

2) Is God asking us to take a stand?

3) Is the Christian church to be blamed for the low moral standing of our elected officials?

4) Is the tax-exempt number the reason we as a body are not affecting our nation’s moral standing?

5) What would God have us do?


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