Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
In a decision that holds ramifications for churches around the country, the Internal Revenue Service found that a non-profit organization that gathered pastors to a series of public policy conferences did not violate the political entanglement laws governing its tax-exempt status.
Prompted by a complaint filed by the Texas Freedom Network, which calls itself “a mainstream voice to counter the religious right,” the IRS investigated the Houston-based Niemoller Foundation for organizing during the 2006 election season six pastors briefings, which included speeches from prominent politicians and training for pastors on urging and registering their congregations to vote.
Despite charges that the foundation had therefore engaged in political partisan activity in violation of its tax exempt status, the IRS investigation found “no evidence of political intervention.”
“This liberal attempt to intimidate pastors has backfired,” said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute, which represented event organizers. “There is now a clear IRS statement outlining these pastors’ events and approving them as valid under the law.”
Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for the Institute, further explained to WND the ramifications the ruling holds for churches.
“The Niemoller Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization, just like a church,” Sasser explained. “So by the Niemoller activities being granted as lawful, then any church that engages in the same kind of voter education combined with voter registration drives on the moral issues of the day is perfectly fine with the IRS regulations, according to the IRS itself.”
Sasser reiterated, “The whole point was to educate everyone about the important social issues and get them to go vote and register others to vote, and the IRS said this was perfectly okay.”
The Niemoller Foundation organized six of the pastors conferences across the state of Texas from May through September 2006. The events were described as briefings to educate pastors on major moral issues that often intersect with politics, such as abortion and same sex marriage.
And while neither the foundation nor the gatherings endorsed any individual candidates or political party, keynote speakers at the conferences included prominent Republican politicians, including Texas Governor Rick Perry, who spoke at all six conferences.
In its letter to the IRS, the Texas Freedom Network complained, “No other candidate for governor in the 2006 elections – including then sitting state Comptroller Carole Strayhorn (a Republican who sought election as an independent in the gubernatorial election) or an Democrat or other independent candidate – was invited to attend any of the briefings.”
Pointing to the selection of speakers and the effort to train pastors in voter registration, the Texas Freedom Network accused the Neimoller Foundation of “partisan electioneering activities.”
The complaint alleged the Foundation “appears to have served as a partisan voter-mobilization tool for the Perry reelection campaign, with affiliated pastors encouraged to use their churches as partisan, political extensions of that campaign.”
After reviewing speeches and other materials from the pastors gatherings, however, the IRS did not concur.
“The speaker did not state anything that would have been considered political or request any action of the attendees to vote for or against any legislature,” the IRS ruling, released last week, states. “In the speeches provided, no political intervention type activity was noted. Several other speeches by politicians were provided and reviewed: The speeches did not appear to be made in their capacity as a candidate, since no solicitation was made for a vote. Also no appeal was made to sway anyone on the issues. The speeches did not appear to be political intervention. An appeal was made to request attendees to vote and to request their members to register and vote, but in each instance observed they were told to vote their values.”
While the IRS does forbid tax exempt organizations under the 501(c)(3) code from overt political entanglements – such as endorsing candidates or requiring members to vote in a certain way – the Liberty Legal Institute’s Kelly Shackelford encouraged churches not to be intimidated into political silence.
“Be careful what you hear from these liberal organizations,” Shackelford said in a statement. “They sound very confident and file many complaints, yet none are found valid even by the IRS.”
Laurence White, director of the Niemoller Foundation and a Lutheran pastor himself, encouraged churches and pastors to get involved.
“We educate churches on moral issues facing our society and encourage them to participate in the democratic process,” said White in a statement. “The IRS has unequivocally affirmed the right of pastors nationwide to come together as spokesmen for the Word of God, to interact with political leaders, historians and scholars in discussing the moral issues under debate within our culture and to assert their biblical responsibility to address such issues from their pulpits.”