A group of congressional Democrats has called for a review of a conservative advocacy group’s tax-exempt status as a church, as well as changes to the application process to prevent political organizations from improperly receiving protection as religious entities.
In an August 1 letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig, the Democratic members of the House of Representatives expressed doubt that the Family Research Council met the eligibility requirements to be classified as an association of churches.
“Given that the FRC is primarily an advocacy organization and not a church, we urge the IRS to swiftly review the tax-exempt status, and whether there are other political advocacy organizations that have obtained church status, but do not satisfy the IRS requirements,” the letter said. The Democrats went on to urge the IRS to revamp the church-status review process generally, to prevent erroneous approvals.
According to its website, the Family Research Council is a “nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to articulating and advancing a family-centered philosophy of public life” by highlighting “family issues that affect the nation from a biblical worldview.”
The lawmakers said that there has been a pattern over the last decade of right-wing organizations abusing the tax code by obtaining church status to avoid oversight and disclosing certain information about board members, staff salaries, donations, and contractor payments. Churches are not required to file Forms 990, Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax, which provides transparency on tax-exempt entities under Code Sec. 501(c)(3).
Importantly, Code Sec. 7611 limits tax examinations of churches. Only an appropriate “high-level Treasury official” can authorize such inquiries. This includes the secretary or a “delegate of the Treasury whose rank is no lower” than that of a regional IRS officer. Politically motivated tax-exempt entities may enjoy this lax scrutiny if they’re considered a church.
ProPublica obtained the Family Research Council’s application for a status change dated March 2, 2020, through a Freedom of Information Act request. The group described its religious history pursuant to the Form 1023 explanation statement as adhering, since its inception, “to a distinctly Christian and Biblical worldview.” The group claimed it partners with churches domestically and abroad.
The Family Research Council also attested to its supposedly regularly scheduled worship services. In its application, the group wrote that its employees attend services in a chapel at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. According to a ProPublica report, which is linked to in a footnote in the letter to Yellen and Rettig, a staff member of the Council said in a phone call that it doesn’t have church services.
Citing the report, the letter said the group “claiming to be a church strains credulity: they do not hold religious services, do not have a congregation or affiliated congregations, and do not possess many of the other attributes of churches listed by the IRS.”
By the IRS’ own admission, there is no specific definition of a church, though it lists on its website 14 characteristics “generally attributed to churches” that incorporate court decisions.
In a social media post on August 4, the Family Research Council accused the IRS of “political targeting” that “threatens religious organizations and critics alike.”
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