Many religious groups don’t seem to get how the system works. It’s really pretty simple. The government doesn’t tax them as long as they stay out of politics.
That temptation is hard to resist… In Texas, a church is being investigated for violating Texas’ election laws and possibly the federal tax code.
The Texas law reads:
A corporation or labor organization may not make a political contribution or political expenditure in connection with a recall election, including the circulation and submission of a petition to call an election.
Non-profit corporations (like churches) are explicitly included in the definition of corporations for the purpose of this statute. The mayor of El Paso, Texas enforced the law against the Word of Life Church after its pastor, Tom Brown, circulated recall petitions against the mayor and two city council members earlier this year.
Their sin? Voting to give same-sex partners of city employees health benefits.
That vote overturned a ballot initiative that Tom Brown had worked to pass. The recall petition was a shot back at the City Council.
Back in August, Americans United filed a complaint with the IRS about Word of Life Church’s activities. Since the IRS code specifically prohibits this sort of thing, it seems implausible that Tom Brown was unaware of that.
That brings us to what’s happening now. In response to the Mayor’s enforcement of the Texas law, the church recently filed a lawsuit (PDF) claiming its First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. (Along with a §1983 claim). Based on my understanding of the IRS restrictions on non-profits, they have absolutely no ground to stand on. However, based on my understanding of Supreme Court jurisprudence and First Amendment decisions… they may have some argument.
If the mayor was looking to stay well within the bounds of legality, he would have done better to call the IRS on them (unless of course he was letting Americans United take care of that).
Readers may want to shed more light on this, but it seems patently unconstitutional, or perhaps it just hasn’t been challenged since Citizens United. It seems likely that the church will win on the constitutional challenge to the Texas election law, given that political speech is the highest rung of speech on the First Amendment ladder. As such, it’s granted heavy protection by the courts from laws like these. As to the IRS complaint, they seem to have pretty blatantly run afoul of IRS regulations. Hopefully they’ll be penalized more heavily than Informed Catholic Citizens were.