IRS loophole gets Minnesota churches off tax-violation hook

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The Internal Revenue Service’s investigations into alleged tax violations by two Minnesota-based churches, Living Word Christian Center (LWCC) and Warroad Community Church, have been thwarted by internal procedural problems.

These cases highlight the special tax-exempt status churches receive by law, but they also underscore problems at the IRS. In effect, the IRS has been unsuccessful in investigating allegations of tax violations by churches because years of conflicting congressional action have made it impossible for the IRS to follow its own rules.

And while the IRS has undertaken the potentially months-long process to reform its broken system, the religious right is seeking to exploit it by encouraging churches to flout the law and endorse candidates from the pulpit next month.

During the 2008 election, Warroad Community Church pastor Gus Booth, a Republican activist, apparently broke tax laws that prohibit electioneering by tax-exempt churches when he endorsed John McCain for president and trashed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton from the pulpit. Last month the IRS suspended its investigation into the church, citing “a pending issue regarding the procedure used to initiate the case.”

In a similar case, the Minnesota Independent (then the Minnesota Monitor) identified questionable accounting practices by the Brooklyn Park–based Living Word Christian Center in 2007, which eventually led to an IRS investigation. But in January of this year, a U.S. District Court judge in Minneapolis also rejected an IRS summons to Living Word Christian Center because of procedural errors.

In both cases conflicting congressional actions prevented the agency from following its own rules.

In 1984, Congress passed the Church Audit Procedures Act to make it harder for the IRS to investigate church abuse of tax law. Among its provisions: An IRS official making a case against a church must hold a rank “no lower than that of a principal Internal Revenue officer for an internal revenue region.”

But thanks to a 1998 act of Congress, the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act, internal revenue regions (and their principal officers) were abolished, and the IRS was divided into sections servicing different categories of taxpayers, including individuals, businesses, and tax-exempt organizations like churches.

This change directly benefited Living Word Christian Center: It won its case in January because the IRS official charged with investigating the allegations wasn’t legally authorized to do so. Similarly, with no one on staff to legally investigate Warroad Community Church, the IRS suspended its investigation.

Reforms proposed by the IRS, entered into the Federal Register in early August, would clear up the contradiction, making the agency’s Director of Exempt Organizations the primary authority for investigating possible violations of tax law by churches. But the process of adopting those changes will be lengthy, involving a public comment period and hearings.

In the meantime, a group of churches plans to violate the law while there’s no one at the IRS to investigate.

On Sunday Sept. 27, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Focus on the Family–affiliated legal group, is encouraging pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit. This year will be the second year of ADF’s “Pulpit Initiative.” Last year 33 churches participated, including Warroad Community Church.

The ADF’s Eric Stanley said that the campaign “is really part of a long, sustained campaign” to get a court challenge to IRS laws governing electioneering.

“We feel very confident that when we do, it will not take long for a federal judge to strike down this unconstitutional restriction on churches’ rights.”

Rob Boston, communications director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, writes that the new IRS rules should give churches participating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday a reason to pause.

“The fact that the IRS has issued these new rules is a sign that it wants to have a mechanism in place that will enable it to investigate churches that openly flout the law by endorsing or opposing candidates,” he wrote on the group’s blog. “Far from rolling over, it looks to me like the IRS is girding for battle. Churches that choose to follow the ADF down this misguided path can’t say they weren’t warned.”

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