• December 18, 2014

Coalition Criticizes Proposal to Ease Ban on Political Activity by Churches

Independent Sector, a major nonprofit coalition, has criticized a proposal from a panel of religious leaders to ease restrictions on political activity by churches and other nonprofits, saying such a move could “undermine the public trust in these charitable organizations and do more harm than good.”

The panel, set up to advise Senator Charles Grassley on tax matters affecting religious organizations, issued a report this week saying that clergy members should be able to endorse or criticize political candidates as long as their organization is not spending money on such activities—and that secular groups should enjoy the same right.

“It is both disturbing and chilling that the federal government regulates the speech of religious and other organizations dedicated to improving the lives of people,” said an introduction to the report by Michael Batts, an accounting expert who heads the 14-member Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations.

But in a statement issued by Diana Aviv, its president, Independent Sector said letting charities endorse political candidates would allow politicians to “use the public’s goodwill towards the charitable sector” to advance their own partisan agendas. “Such action would drag the charitable sector into the morass of political activity, driving a nail into the coffin of its integrity and credibility,” it said.

Religious groups and other charities organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code are now banned from any partisan political activities. The panel said it agreed that those organizations should not be able to donate money to political parties or candidates but that they should be allowed to talk about politics as part of their normal activities.

It said the Internal Revenue Service guidelines on political activity are vague and the rules are enforced inconsistently.

The religious commission was set up by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability in 2011 to examine concerns that Sen. Grassley, a senior Republican from Iowa, had about possible tax abuses by television evangelists. It issued its first report in December, which dealt with issues like executive compensation and perks.

A report prepared by Sen. Grassley’s staff also suggested repealing or narrowing the rule that bars charities from getting involved in political campaigns, calling it vague, hard to enforce, and without good justification.

But Independent Sector said that while charities should educate public officials and advocate for issues important to their missions, they “should remain above the political fray.”

Mr. Batts said the commission understands that opinions differ on some parts of its report, adding: "We welcome a healthy dialogue on issues we believe to be a very important part of our First Amendment rights."

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