IRS to churches: Don’t play politics

The Internal Revenue Service has been warning churches and nonprofit organizations that improper campaigning in the upcoming political season could endanger their tax-exempt status.

In notices to more than 15,000 tax-exempt organizations, numerous church denominations and tax preparers, the agency has detailed its new enforcement program, called the Political Activity Compliance Initiative, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.

Under the initiative, the IRS plans to expedite investigations into claims of improper campaigning, no longer waiting for an annual tax return to be filed or the tax year to end before launching a probe. A three-member committee will make an initial review of complaints and then vote on whether to pursue the investigation in detail.

"While the vast majority of charities and churches do not engage in politicking, an increasing number did take part in prohibited activities in the 2004 election cycle," IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said in a statement. "The rule against political campaign intervention by charities and churches is long established. We are stepping up our efforts to enforce it."

Since 2004, the IRS has investigated more than 200 organizations, including All Saints Church in Pasadena.

Two days before the 2004 presidential election, the Rev. George F. Regas, the church’s former rector, delivered a guest sermon that pictured Jesus in a debate with George W. Bush and John Kerry. Although Regas didn’t endorse a candidate, he said Jesus would have told Bush that his pre-emptive war policy "has led to disaster."

The church drew national attention when the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints, disclosed the IRS investigation and later said the agency believed the church had violated federal tax code barring tax-exempt organizations from intervening in political campaigns and elections.

Church leaders have not heard from the IRS since October, when the agency said the investigation was being taken to a higher level, according to Regas. The IRS has not confirmed whether the investigation is still ongoing.

Of the 62 organizations determined by the IRS to be in violation, three lost their nonprofit status and 59 received warning letters. The three who lost their status were not churches, and some of those warned were ordered to pay an excise tax.

Federal law prohibits the IRS from releasing the names of those under investigation, but the agency said it has more than 100 cases pending and 40 of them are churches.

This month, OMB Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit government watchdog group, issued a report criticizing the IRS enforcement program and said the program could prompt retaliatory and harassment complaints unless the agency develops clear guidelines.

"I don’t think this is a case of bad faith," said Kay Guinane, author of the report. "I just think it’s a poorly structured program."

© 2006 The Associated Press