It started when I wrote the article on the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), the pro-abortion rights group. I became curious about the UMC General Board of Church and Society that is directly affiliated with the RCRC, so I went hunting for their tax forms, wondering where they put their money, as I often do when I research abortion ties. But what I found surprised me. Almost every non profit’s 990 tax forms are publicly available because they are public record; however, the UMC’s political arm was not—because it was a church.
By its membership and heavy involvement in the RCRC, the UMC is mixing religion and politics in a way that ought to be examined by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) if not the Christians in America standing for LIFE.
It’s a fascinating thing to note that a pastor who endorses a political candidate or campaign from the pulpit that holds a hint of endorsement or support for one side s threatened with a loss of tax exempt status and heralded before many as a violator of tax laws. But for some reason the UMC General Board and Society gets the best of both worlds. Its history of political activity is not much different than a PAC or other politically motivated organization. By throwing the name of Jesus into the mix while affiliating with a recognized church, they have found a loophole that lets them lobby without consequence. It’s time for this to be examined closer.
Here’s what the IRS says about 501(c)(3) organizations being involved politically:
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. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
However, beyond the candidate issues that seem blatant, this section of the IRS law seems particularly applicable to the UMC and other religious organizations lobbying wit the RCRC:
However, section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate’s name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography. All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the advocacy is political campaign intervention.
These IRS comments are striking to me because all I see coming from the UMC General Board is political and sometimes it clearly favors candidates, certainly it’s not often a naming issue as much as it is an opposing of those who don’t support what the church thinks should be its political agenda. As the health care law, passed along partisan lines, has been forefront in the news lately, it’s interesting to see how the UMC has approached it. From the beginning of the debate, it did not hesitate to intervene
From the UMC General Board and Society Page, showing its political priorities
I get that there is a fine line here and that expert lobby folks know how to walk it well, but it’s still troubling when I see stories like this story from Politico as the health care bill was being contested. It included such things as direct campaigning to a senator to change his view on health care—under the direction of the church. It includes a script, and comments that clearly don’t simply encourage political activity but dictate the UMC stance as somehow the correct stance and uses the name of Jesus to motivate political action:
“The U.S. health-care system is broken. It needs to be repaired. Your U.S. senator, Ben Nelson, is the last holdout blocking an important step forward in the reform.
“It is important that Sen. Nelson set aside his personal agenda and think about the common good. According to a recent report, if this bill fails to pass, nearly 40,000 Nebraskans will join the ranks of those without health-care coverage….
“Frankly, I believe Jesus set the bar high in reaching out to the disenfranchised among us. I disagree that some ought to be able to have better health care than others — and so does The United Methodist Church!
“The Senate bill is significant because it contains far more protections for people and covers far more people who currently do not have insurance.
Legal? Maybe; I’m not the IRS. Ethical. Not really. The UMC has used its position as a church to invade the political arena. With offices in DC where they can easily lobby, to the United Nations building, the General Board and Society is more about preaching the message of justice that looks like humanitarian aid more than the gospel on some issues, such as abortion. And that’s anyone’s right but to not have to file the 990s so we can see where their money is going as we can the RCRC, Planned Parenthood, and other organizations with the same tax-exempt status does a disservice to church members who don’t realize the UMCs political pro-abortion ties and lobbying activities. This is the entire point of the RCRC:
“RCRC was founded in 1973 to safeguard the newly won constitutional right to privacy in decisions about abortion. The Coalition founders were clergy and lay leaders from mainstream religions, many of whom had provided women with referrals to safe abortion services before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. The founders believed that there would be at most a ten-year struggle to secure the right to choose. In fact the struggle is far from over. It has changed and intensified, and the stakes are growing.
Tax-exempt Planned Parenthood, organized a bit differently than a church, recently endorsed President Obama. It’s only one degree of separation between the UMC and RCRC member churches and Planned Parenthood because they actually endorse Planned Parenthood, and while that may be (if it is) enough for the tax code loopholes, it ought to raise serious questions to the American people.
Even if you are pro-choice there should be cause for alarm when the lines get muddled this way. There’s already a threat to the religious status of many organizations these days. As mixture comes in and lobbying groups pass themselves off as churches, making the lines blur, at some point we’ll all be affected and the local Baptist pastor down the road who’s simply preaching salvation and Jesus every week may be the next victim, finding his own tax-exempt status stripped because of what one big church did to blur the lines and use Jesus to help make the markers less clear.
If the RCRC member churches and branches of a church like the UMC General Board and Society want to be political organizations then they need to split from the religious organizations and do it both for the integrity of their people and before the IRS jumps in and removes all of our tax-exempt statuses because of a few bad apples.