The Internal Revenue Service said yesterday it found a “disturbing” amount of illegal politicking in churches and charities after investigating complaints coming out of the 2004 election.
To prevent a repeat in the upcoming congressional elections, the agency said it is gearing up to quickly investigate and quash any violations that arise this year.
“We want to stop improper activity during — not after — the election cycle,” said IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson. “Now is the time to act, before it is too late” to prevent churches and charities from becoming deeply embroiled in politics and the fundraising process.
More than 100 complaints were filed with the tax agency after the closely contested 2004 presidential election charging that some evangelical and black churches and various nonprofit groups violated their tax-exempt status by overtly campaigning for the candidates.
The agency completed investigations of 82 cases, and found that nearly three out of four of the groups violated the tax law at least once. It did not release any of the groups’ names but said they represented “the full spectrum of political viewpoints.”
“It’s disturbing,” Mr. Everson said. While the political activity does not appear to be “pervasive,” he said, “it has the potential to really grow and have a very bad impact on the integrity of charities and churches.”
The IRS has fined one group, moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of another three, and sent 55 organizations, including 39 churches, letters of warning not to violate the law again. Investigations are ongoing in another 28 cases.
Common violations in the 2004 elections included distributing campaign literature and lists recommending candidates, endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit, and inviting candidates to appear at church meetings or other social functions, according to a task force set up by the agency to investigate complaints.
Some groups blatantly violated the law by making cash campaign contributions, while the political activities of others were more vague and harder to discern, Mr. Everson said.
“Clearly political intervention by charities and churches is an area where the IRS must tread carefully. There are few bright lines for evaluating political intervention,” he said. “But I am convinced that we must act. We can’t afford to have our charitable and religious institutions undermined by politics.”
While only a handful of the more than 1 million U.S. churches and charities received complaints and were investigated, the IRS said the findings are worrying enough that it is stepping up efforts to educate groups about the rules that govern them.
The agency said some violations appear to result from ignorance of the ban on political activities, which Congress enacted in 1954 as a condition organizations must meet to receive tax-exempt status.
“Americans have always held our charities and churches in high esteem. We recognize the vital role they play in our national life,” Mr. Everson said. But “Congress saw the need to separate charities and churches from politics,” and courts have upheld that distinction.
With more than $10 billion spent during the 2004 elections, Mr. Everson said the IRS must move quickly to draw the line because he fears churches and charities could otherwise be drawn further into the fundraising process.