IRS officials stepping up enforcement

Alarmed by an increase in political activity by religious organizations, the IRS pledged earlier this year to crack down on violators.

The agency issued a memo in February warning that churches and other tax-exempt organizations “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.”‘

The agency says such organizations risk losing tax-exempt status if they endorse candidates, distribute statements for or against candidates, raise funds for or donate to candidates, or become involved in any activity that would either be supportive or opposed to a candidate. They are also prohibited from allowing a candidate to use their assets or facilities, if other candidates are not given the same opportunity.

The IRS said it discovered a surprising level of political activity among churches and other tax-exempt organizations in the 2004 elections. Out of 82 investigations of tax-exempt organizations completed by February, the IRS found political violations in 59 cases. In 56 cases, the organizations were issued warning letters or ordered to pay taxes. In three cases, they were stripped of their tax-exempt status. In 18 cases, no violation was found, and in five cases, violations not related to politics were discovered, the agency said.

“While the vast majority of charities and churches do not engage in politicking, an increasing number did take part in prohibited activities in the 2004 election cycle,” IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said in a June statement. “The rule against political campaign intervention by charities and churches is long established. We are stepping up our efforts to enforce it.”

Mormons, like individuals in many religions, have a long history of political activity. Joseph Smith, who founded what is formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ran for president in 1844. But the Mormon church espouses a policy of political neutrality, as a way to protect its core mission, to spread the Gospel, from the vagaries of politics.

This year, the church reaffirmed its neutrality in a statement released by the church’s top three leaders, a group known collectively as the First Presidency, which they asked to be read aloud in all congregations in the United States.

“In this election year Church members are again reminded to exercise their right to study the issues and candidates, and then vote for those they believe will most nearly carry out their ideas of good government,” the statement says. “While affirming its constitutional right of expression on political and social issues, the Church reaffirms its long-standing policy of neutrality and does not endorse candidates for political office. Church facilities and membership data are not to be used for political purposes.”

The church has been active, however, in high-profile social issues. The IRS prohibition only affects advocacy on behalf of particular politicians or political causes.

In the 1970s, the church worked to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, proposed to guarantee equal rights for women. The church’s current president and prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, then an apostle in the church, advocated keeping the church’s role covert, issuing a statement saying Mormon-led groups working to defeat the amendment “should not use LDS in title of organizations,” D. Michael Quinn, a former BYU history professor and a specialist on Mormonism, wrote in a 2005 anthology on Utah politics.

In recent years, Mormon leaders have advocated for bans on gay marriage and fought efforts to expand gambling.

Prominent politicians who are Mormons include Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, and Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah.

James E. Faust, a member of the First Presidency, was asked at a commemoration event in March 2005 whether the country was ready to elect a Mormon president. He answered by pointing out that John F. Kennedy won in 1960 despite prevalent anti-Catholic sentiment at the time.

“But that day came,” Faust said. “I expect that day will come for a Mormon.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday October 19, 2006.
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