For the past three years, the IRS hasn't been investigating complaints of partisan political activity by churches, leaving religious groups who make direct or thinly veiled endorsements of political candidates unchallenged.
The IRS monitors religious and other nonprofits on everything from salaries to spending, and that oversight continues. However, Russell Renwicks, a manager in the IRS Mid-Atlantic region, recently said the agency had suspended audits of churches suspected of breaching federal restrictions on political activity. A 2009 federal court ruling required the IRS to clarify which high-ranking official could authorize audits over the tax code's political rules. The IRS has yet to do so.
Dean Patterson, an IRS spokesman in Washington, said Renwicks, who examines large tax-exempt groups, "misspoke." Patterson would not provide any specifics beyond saying that "the IRS continues to run a balanced program that follows up on potential noncompliance."
However, attorneys who specialize in tax law for religious groups, as well as advocacy groups who monitor the cases, say they know of no IRS inquiries in the past three years into claims of partisanship by houses of worship. IRS church audits are confidential, but usually become public as the targeted religious groups fight to maintain their nonprofit status.
"The impression created is that no one is minding the store," said Melissa Rogers, a legal scholar and director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina. "When there's an impression the IRS is not enforcing the restriction — that seems to embolden some to cross the line." ...
In a survey last week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 40% of black Protestants who attend worship services regularly said their clergy have discussed a specific candidate in church — and the candidate in every instance was President Barack Obama.