IFAS | Freedom Writer | January/February 1992 | irs.html

IRS warns: 'Shun politics'

After six years, the federal government has finally acted on the involvement of tax-exempt religious organizations in partisan politics. In January, 1992, the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries (JSM) accepted an IRS finding that its 1986 endorsement of Pat Robertson for president in 1988 violated its tax-exempt status. And with the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries serving as an example, the IRS has warned other 501(c)(3) organizations to stay out of politics. Holders of a 501(c)(3) status are forbidden to endorse or oppose any candidate for public office.

Six years ago, the Freedom Writer's publisher filed a complaint against JSM for its endorsement of Pat Robertson for president. The original complaint was filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on November 10, 1986, by Charles "Skipp" Por teous, national director of the Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.

The complaint was based on the fact that Marion "Pat" Robertson, having raised $5 million for his presidential bid, was a candidate, and not merely testing the waters; and that Jimmy Swaggart, on behalf of his tax-exempt organization, endorsed Robertson. In the October 1986 issue of his magazine, The Evangelist, Swaggart wrote, "We are supporting Pat Robertson for President of the United States." Initially, the FEC found that the JSM had communicated a political endorsement in violation of FEC regulations. However, after JSM lawyers appealed, the FEC reversed its finding, and said the ministry violated no law.

That wasn't the end of the matter, however. The Internal Revenue Service took on the complaint and began to investigate Swaggart's ministry. It found two problem areas in the non-profit group's activities. For undisclosed reasons, the ministry was assessed $177,122 in back taxes and interest for 1985 and 1986. In the area of our complaint - political activity by a tax-exempt organization - the IRS found the Swaggart ministry guilty of endorsing Robertson for president.

Rather than revoke the ministry's tax-exempt status, the IRS made an agreement with JSM. As part of its agreement, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries promised: "Under no circumstances will any of JSM's resources, including financial resources, personnel or facilities, be utilized to participate or intervene in a political campaign."

Mark Owens, of the IRS's tax-exempt organizations division, said, "Our goal is not to put folks out of business; we are interested in getting the organizations to comply and in getting a message out to other charities that there is a downside to intervening in a campaign."

The JSM case is of particular significance, as it serves notice to other politically active non-profit groups. Nevertheless, while a number of non- profit organizations have apparently violated tax and campaign laws, some organizations, such as the Christian Coalition, are not tax-exempt, and may legally participate in partisan politics.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.