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Yesterday Jdories had an excellent diary on the rec list that analyzed a nasty Religious Right voter guide issued by the Pennsylvania Family Institute.

As is often the case with such encounters, there is more to the story. And it is this wider story that may very well make a difference beyond today, as we continue to contend with the power of the Religious Right in general, and as we try to sort out what tax-exempt groups, including and especially churches can and cannot do in relation to candidates and elections.  I am not going to try to sort all that out today but simply want to call attention to the ongoing effort of the Religious Right to bend and break the law in this area, and urge people to keep an eagle eye out for violations. There is some useful heads up material below.

The Pennsylvania Family Institute is the state political affiliate of James Dobson's political arm,Focus on the Family Action. PFI has been issuing voter guides since at least 1994, and one year reportedly distributed a million copies. (I wrote about this network for The Public Eye in 1999. PDF). What is unusual this year, is that PFI is using the voter guide (PDF) issued by David Barton's organization Wall Builders rather than making their own. Barton's group was accused of issuing biased voter guides during the primaries this year. Americans United for Separartion of Church and State reported:

In April, Americans United asked the IRS to investigate a biased voter guide issued by Barton’s WallBuilders and distributed by Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA). It was clearly stacked to steer evangelical voters toward then-candidate Mike Huckabee.

Though tax-exempt groups may put out voter guides, the IRS is clear that voter education may not be biased in favor of one or more candidates.

The guide put out by WallBuilders and AFA distorted the views of the other candidates and relied on outdated information about these candidates’ views on select issues.

Back in April, AU reported,

WallBuilders came up with a new voter guide that is clearly designed to enlist evangelical voters to support Republican presidential candidate John McCain. A small print disclaimer states the guide was 501(c)(3) approved by Liberty Counsel and Liberty Legal Institute, but that means practically nothing considering those are far-from-objective Religious Right operations.

This is the same Wallbuilders guide used by PFI that was the subject of Jdories' diary. Check it out.

As for Liberty Counsel, it is a Christian Right legal group headed Mathew Staver the Dean of the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University School of Law. Uncoincidentally, Liberty Counsel has copies of the voter guides for a number of Religious Right groups posted on its web site. These include the voter guides for the Family Research Council Action; Don Wildmon's American Family Association; Frank Pavone's Priests for Life; the FOF Action affilated Florida Family Policy Council (county and judicial races); and Janet Folger's Faith2Action (includes race specific guides for House races in Florida, Colorado, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania; and Senate races in Mississippi, Colorado, North Carolina and Minnesota.

No doubt, there is much fascinating stuff in these guides. Far more than I have the time and expertise to unpack. But here it is for those who need to know.

While the tax code can be complicated in any sector, there is one bright line with regard to churches and elections, everything else is details.  The IRS states:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.

Part of the strategy of the Religious Right for many years has been to bend and break the rules. I have no doubt that this year will be no execption.

Originally posted to Frederick Clarkson on Tue Nov 04, 2008 at 10:37 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I have not had time to analyze (21+ / 0-)

    the voter guides and have not heard a lot about the context of their use or misuse in the field. But I have no doubt that there will be plenty to keep Americans United and the IRS busy for awhile.

  •  Bending The Rules ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ... I guess the Religious Right is more of a "ends" vs "means" group, eh?

    As the joke goes, if Jesus came back today and saw what people were doing in his name, he would be projectile vomiting for days.

    John McCain: GIs don't need no stinkin' college.

    by howd on Tue Nov 04, 2008 at 10:47:59 AM PST

  •  It is ok. They are Christians. (5+ / 0-)

    They don't have to obey man's law. And they can readily break their own god's law as well. All is forgiven with that special get-out-of-hell card they are carrying. Repentence gets easier every time you do it.

    As if things could get worse without getting better.

    by A Voice on Tue Nov 04, 2008 at 10:58:21 AM PST

  •  Caution: Not all of these organizations (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    are 501(c)(3)'s. Some are 501(c)(4)'s . . . Social Welfare organizations.

    IRC Section 501(c)(3) exempts:

    Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.

    Section 501(c)(4) exempts:

    (A)   Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, or local associations of employees, the membership of which is limited to the employees of a designated person or persons in a particular municipality, and the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.
    (B)   Subparagraph (A) shall not apply to an entity unless no part of the net earnings of such entity inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.

    A 501(c)(4) may engage in an insignificant amount of political activity, but will be taxed on it (excise tax) under IRC section 527.

    Brief overview of Social Welfare Organizations:

    IRS on Social Welfare Organizations

    So, long story short: the following organizations are 501(c)(4)'s (from IRS EO database):

    Family Research Council Action
    Focus on the Family Action
    Faith 2 Action

    These are 501(c)(3)'s:

    Florida Family Policy Council
    Pennsylvania Family Institute
    Wall Builders
    American Family Association
    Priests for Life
    Liberty Counsel (interestingly . . .)

    In order to ferret out improper political activity, you have to look to which organization is actually authoring and distributing these guides. Most of these organizations try to do their political work through their social welfare arms, to avoid being in violation of 501(c)(3).

    Details are important! Now you know what to look for.

    "According to the log we're down to our last 3000 vomit bags. It'll never be enough." - Rimmer, Red Dwarf

    by OnYourLeft on Tue Nov 04, 2008 at 11:12:02 AM PST

    •  indeed, and thanks. (0+ / 0-)

      However, it is also true that even c4s are not allowed to function in a partisan fashion such as issuing slanted voter guides. (Obviously, slant is a matter of interpretation. But nevertheless. This is one of the issues that led to the C4 Christian Coalition losing its non-profit status in the 90s.)

      What's more, the groups that issue the guide are not always the same as those institutions, such as churches that USE the guide.

      •  I believe what brought down the (0+ / 0-)

        Christian Coalition, is that its activity became more than "insubstantial." A (c)(4) may indeed intervene in a poltical campaign in favor of, or in opposition to, a political candidate. But only a teensy tinsy bit.

        If you ever have trouble sleeping some night <g>, you can read this 2003 IRS CPE article on political activity of 501(c)(4), (5) and (6) organizations; it's a pretty good summary, in Q and Q format:

        Political Campaign and Lobbying Activities of IRC 501(c)(4), (c)(5), and (c)(6) Organizations

        "According to the log we're down to our last 3000 vomit bags. It'll never be enough." - Rimmer, Red Dwarf

        by OnYourLeft on Tue Nov 04, 2008 at 11:39:40 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Ahem . . Q and A format. (0+ / 0-)

          I'm a good CPA, but at times a lousy editor. <g>

          "According to the log we're down to our last 3000 vomit bags. It'll never be enough." - Rimmer, Red Dwarf

          by OnYourLeft on Tue Nov 04, 2008 at 11:40:44 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  What brought down the CC (0+ / 0-)

          was in part its slanted voter guides. No question about it. Indeed, it was part of the pattern of activities which taken together constituted unambiguous violations.

          •  I should add (0+ / 0-)

            that the original complaint brought by the Viriginia Demcocratic Party had my original article from Church and State magazine attached. I was present undercover for the first (and second) Road to Victory national strategy conference of the Christian Coaliton at Robertson HQ in Virginia Beach. Long before they became big public annual spectacles in DC.

            •  Interesting. (0+ / 0-)

              I just googled that article, but could not access it.

              It looks to me that the CC applied to IRS for recognition of 501(c)(4) status. They operated as a 501(c)(4) while the exemption application was pending, as is permitted. Reading between the lines of the articles I found, it looks like IRS rejected the application because CC's political activity was not "insubstantial." CC pressed the case and fought, and finally gave up and withdrew the application. So, unfortunately, the application is not public information, and what I'm doing here is merely surmising what happened. (The application would have made for an interesting read, for sure.)

              "According to the log we're down to our last 3000 vomit bags. It'll never be enough." - Rimmer, Red Dwarf

              by OnYourLeft on Tue Nov 04, 2008 at 11:59:18 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

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