Every election season, religious groups flirt with the line between political action allowed under IRS non-profit guidelines and outright endorsing candidates, which is prohibited by the 501(c)(3) guidelines. This year, the American Family Association, which is a well-known right-wing conservative religious group, has apparently blatantly violated those laws.
My friend Lamar from CenLamar.com has forwarded an email to me that was sent to him by a friend. In it, the American Family Association not only violates non-profit rules as set forth by the IRS, it also encourages pastors to endorse specific candidates to their congregations. While this isn’t the first time that conservative religious organizations have flaunted the law governing what they can and cannot do as a non-profit, this may be one of the most flagrant violations yet.
The email was sent out to an unknown number of recipients, requesting that they use the resources provided by the American Family Association to persuade their congregations to vote for candidates picked by the AFA. Below is a screenshot of the email itself dated October 28th, 2014 which was sent from the email address [email protected] with the “reply to” email of [email protected], and the subject line “Pastors, are you ready to lead?”
It also includes a link to this .pdf flyer that states positions to take on issues that don’t fall under the usual opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
American Family Association is, according to their website, a non-profit organization:
American Family Association (AFA), a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, was founded in 1977 by Donald E. Wildmon, who was the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Southaven, Mississippi, at the time. Since 1977, AFA has been on the frontlines of America’s culture war. The original name of the ministry was National Federation for Decency but was changed to American Family Association in 1988.
Today, AFA is led by AFA President Tim Wildmon, and it continues as one of the largest and most effective pro-family organizations in the country with hundreds of thousands of supporters. (Source)
As I noted earlier, non-profits are prohibited from endorsing candidates, which the AFA is specifically doing here. From the IRS website, bold emphasis mine:
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.
Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.
On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention. (Source)
I then went to the voter guide that was linked in the email and plugged in an address near my local Starbucks coffee shop, and a list of candidates – along with AFA’s rating of them – popped up.
While the American Family Association does not explicitly endorse a candidate in these races, it outlines how conservative or liberal they consider them to be and reminds people to vote in accordance with their values. When you combine this with asking pastors to distribute church bulletin inserts and direct their congregation to this voter guide, it becomes pretty clear that implied endorsements are being made. Whether or not the IRS decides to investigate the AFA now that they will soon be free to follow up on violations of the 501(c)(3) rules that prohibit non-profit religious organizations from endorsing candidates remains to be seen. However, it is clear that if this is not dealt with, we will see other organizations like the American Family Association flaunt the law even further than in this incident.
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