Republican nominee Mitt Romney meets with the Rev. Billy Graham, and his son Franklin Graham in Montreat, N.C. in 2012. (Melina Mara — THE WASHINGTON POST)
It sometimes seems that everyone ever audited by the IRS or even asked questions about a return is claiming ideological harassment. Franklin Graham has decided that he too is a victim of IRS overreach. I think he’s a victim of something else: His lust for the media spotlight and his disgust with President Obama.
Graham, the son of famous evangelist Billy Graham, has written a letter to Obama carping because ministries founded by this father, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse (a group that has received millions in tax dollars), had been asked questions about political activity by the tax agency.
An IRS policy that subjected Tea Party and other conservative groups to heightened scrutiny and extra paperwork when they applied for tax exemption has been much in the news. Few are defending that policy. Indeed, for many of us who have worked in Washington for a long time, it brought back memories of the bad old days when some political leaders tried to use the IRS to harass groups on the political left.
Is this what happened to Graham? Was he too singled out for his views?
In a word, no.
First, Graham’s ministries already have tax-exempt status. The problem is that the BGEA appears to be abusing it by engaging in improper partisan politicking. Religious and non-religious nonprofits that enjoy the benefit of tax exemption are prohibited from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Groups holding 501(c)(3) status can speak out on issues, but telling people who to vote for or against is unequivocally disallowed. It is a statutory “zero tolerance” policy for electioneering.
Yet Graham himself acknowledges that the BGEA advised its followers to support only “candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel.”
Or consider what Graham did just weeks before the 2012 election: He arranged for his father to meet with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and endorse him. The senior Graham told Romney, “I will do all I can to help you,”
Shortly after that, the BGEA began using the ministry’s tax-exempt funds to pay for full-page ads in newspapers. These ads featured Billy Graham stating, “I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”
It was common knowledge at the time that Obama supported marriage equality while Romney opposed it. In light of that, you’d have to be pretty dense to read these ads as anything but a command to vote for Romney.
This activity was clearly an effort by one of the Graham families’ tax-exempt groups to directly affect the outcome of the election. If this brazen action led to IRS scrutiny, I’m fine with that. My only regret is that the agency didn’t yank the BGEA’s tax-exempt status for doing so.
The problem isn’t that the IRS is being too aggressive in this area. It’s that its enforcement efforts have been sporadic, unfocused and tepid. Instead of putting applications from Tea Party groups under a microscope, the IRS would do better to crack down on Graham and the religious leaders like him who openly flout federal tax law.
Every year, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal group founded by radio and TV preachers, hosts “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” During this euphemistically named and highly choreographed event, a handful of misguided pastors openly break the law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. Some send their sermons to the IRS and occasionally even send me a copy so I can forward them to the IRS. These churches didn’t just go up to the line, they leaped right over it.
What has the IRS done about this flagrant law-breaking? Precious little. The agency has even refused to alter a simple regulation that would smooth the process for audits of churches, which is a necessary first step in these investigations.
The IRS can’t claim it doesn’t know this is happening. Americans United sent the agency numerous examples of religious organizations getting partisan. Instead of punishing these actual scofflaws, the IRS chose to muddy the waters by appearing to countenance a policy that targeted some conservative applicants for tax exemption for extra scrutiny. (I should note that now some liberal groups have come forward to say they were also scrutinized.)
Perhaps someday the real story of what was going on at the IRS will come out although I suspect there may be little more to this than bureaucratic ineptitude. Now that the problem has been identified, it’s time for the IRS to clean house, streamline its processes and take actions to restore public confidence in the agency.
The agency could get a start on that by enforcing the laws on the books in the case of real violations, not theoretical ones. Where to begin?
Well, I know of a preacher in North Carolina who has a bad habit of using his tax-exempt ministry for partisan purposes. His actions deserve a thorough investigation.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.