Franklin Graham vs. the IRS

Republican nominee Mitt Romney meets with the Rev. Billy Graham, and his son Franklin Graham in Montreat, N.C. in 2012. … Continued


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.

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  • scocat

    Look in your own back yard. Graham didnt come even close to doing what your church did in 2007.

    “In 2007, US Presidential candidate and longtime UCC member Barack Obama spoke at the UCC’s Iowa Conference meeting and at the General Synod 26. A complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service alleged that the UCC promoted Obama’s candidacy by having him speak at those meetings”.

  • Jitegemea

    Uhmmmm… reasoning seems to have escaped Barry Lynn’s educational process. His inability to process intellectual, rationale thought processes is stark and should be embarassing… News flash: endorsement of a concept does not necessarily constitute endorsement of any particular candidate that holds that position. Get a grip, man.

  • frjohn1

    When it gets to the point that a minister is harassed by the IRS for supporting the Biblical definition of marriage we are no longer a free country and have become a politically correct dictatorship. Speaking in defense of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman is a right protected by the !st amendment that prevents any effort by the government to prevent the free exercise of religion. Mr. Lynn and his group are anti-religious freedom, because they constantly try to use the power of the government and the courts to prevent the free exercise of religion. This latest scandal is the greatest threat to our freedom since the Alien and Sedition Acts during the John Adams administration.. People need to be sent to prison over this to set an example that will prevent this sort of massive abuse of power by our government.
    Fr. John W. Morris

  • eagle007

    You are a freaking Communist PIG just like Obozo and his followers. How dare you say that the Rev. Graham has no right to tell Christians to vote and support candidates that believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. You are nothing but an ignorant stupid writer that would not have a real job any where else on this planet, what saves you is this rag, the Washington Compost!!!

  • smitisan

    Graham can say whatever he wants. He had better be prepared to give up his tax exemption if he breaks the law, though. And I would say the same of any preacher who told his people to vote for Obama.

  • smitisan

    People ought to go to prison, allright, the ones who lied on their applications.

  • smitisan

    Uh-huh. So candidates shouldn’t go to church. Great idea.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    I don’t think there is any need to worry. Given the IRS abuses that have come to light, I think you can rest assured that the IRS DID scrutinize the activities of the Graham ministries.

    By the way, “the bad old days when some political leaders tried to use the IRS to harass groups on the political left” were the days of Richard Nixon. Given what happened to him, I can see why the author would not want to mention his name so as to have it associated with this Obama Administration scandal.

    As to the complaint that the IRS has done nothing to stop religious organizations from becoming partisan…that raises the question of whether or not it is constitutional to use taxation as a means of censoring the political speech of a person or organization simply because that person or organization has an opinion on politics. I’m a religious person and I have political views. Obviously I voice my political views. I also pay taxes. Should the IRS be allowed to seize some percentage of what I give to the church, thereby taxing me twice?

    At any rate, the definition of marriage is as much a BIBLICAL issue as it is a political one, so I don’t see where the government can have any right to stop a religious person from communicating what is clearly stated in his scriptures, even if it does cross over into the political.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Correction to paragraph 3: The question I meant to raise is whether or not it is constitutional for the government to use taxation as a means of censoring the political speech of RELIGIOUS persons or organizations. I left the word “religious” out of my statement.

  • NewCovenant

    No, the Religious Right Wingers are the greatest threat posed to this nation. The United States of American IS NOT AND NEVER HAS BEEN A THEOCRACY! But that’s EXACTLY what the Religious Right Wingers want to establish. They are just as much, if not more of, a threat to the country as Muslim extremists.

  • NewCovenant

    Well, we know it’s getting closer to the next election — it’s scandal time in Washington D.C.: Benghazi, IRS scrutiny of organizations that applied for non-profit, tax-exempt status that are obviously political in nature, and the request for AP phone records. The Republicans/Tea Partiers are gleefully foaming at the mouth.

    I would bet all the money the U.S. Mint has ever and could ever print that the Republicans/Tea Partiers are behind it all. They’re mad as heck that Obama won last November. They scared to death that 6 states have passed marriage equality laws since November and that one other may do so by the end of May, and that opinion polls show over 50% of the people support marriage equality laws, which means the Republicans/Tea Partiers are losing their biggest gimmick to get their supporters to the polls. And they’re absolutely terrified that Hillary Clinton could decide to run for president in 2016, which means they’d lose again, because if she runs, she’ll win by a landslide of the popular and electoral vote (which is why they’re trying to bring her down with Darryl “the alarm manufacturer” Issa’s relentless pursuit of Benghazi).

    So, yeah, the Republicans/Tea Partiers are behind the “scandals.” They don’t have any REAL solutions to the country’s problems, so they need their usual smoke and mirrors tactics. They’re the party of “No”: no ideas, no morals, no integrity.

  • smitisan

    Nobody’s censoring you. It’s a free country. You can say whatever you want, just don’t expect government endorsement. And if marriage is defined by the Bible, I want my five hundred concubines!

  • ThomasBaum

    It’s a shame, to put it mildly, that anyone would look at Benghazi from a political point of view when from what seems to have happened is that people in the employ of the US and supposedly under whatever protection the US could have provided asked for help and were ignored.

    On top of this, from what has been reported, belatedly, is that people rather high up fabricated a story, shall we say, somewhat different than the story line that they received from those that supposedly knew what was actually happening.

    It may be for a supposedly different reason but isn’t it rather strange, if this is true, that the person that they tried to put the blame on, the film maker, is in jail but those that mislead the American people and apparently absolutely ignored those needing and asking for help seem to be free, legally anyway, and clear.

    I guess that it is alright to have the rights that the bill of rights spells out for us as long as we don’t exercise those rights.

    Not using or attempting to use the power to protect that one has been given in winning or being appointed to a position is still abuse of power.

  • ThomasBaum

    smitisan

    When you become king maybe you can get your “five hundred concubines”.

  • ThomasBaum

    Jesus forced Himself on no one, Jesus became One of us and lived and died for All of us and He never, ever said or did anything that should have given anyone the idea to set up a theocracy in Jesus’s Name.

  • smitisan

    Yes, it’s certainly “a shame. . . that anyone would look at Benghazi from a political point of view.”

  • smitisan

    What’s Jesus got to do with it? None of that’s ever stopped theocrats before.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    NewCovenant, take another look at your calendar. We’re nowhere near the next election so there goes your hypothesis for the reason behind this scandal.

    My hypothesis for the scandals is this: There is an Obama Administration scandal because the Obama Administration behaved scandalously.

    smitisan, people died because of some really dumb decisions which came from somewhere in this administration. I find it odd that you consider the investigation into the matter to be nothing more than political.

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    A tax exempt group is allowed to run issue ads but can’t endorse specific candidates. The point of contention is, what happens when a candidate is so identified with an issue that an issue ad “obviously” refers to that specific candidate? Okay, obvious to whom? That’s such a muddy area that no sane lawyer would go there. That’s why IRS lawyers do nothing.

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    Mr Lynn says that, “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.”

    I’m afraid that the joke is on Mr. Lynn and Americans United here, because they don’t understand either church governance or the tax status of pastors. Very few outside the church are aware that, under US tax law, the pastor of an evangelical church is a statutory contractor. The church, as a nonprofit org, is tax exempt, but the pastor, as an independent contractor, pays taxes on his income.

    An organization can be held liable for the actions of its officers and key employees, but, as a practical matter, can not be liable for the actions of independent contractors. For a church to be deemed to have supported a political candidate, there would have to have been a vote or an action by the church governing body, of which the pastor is not normally a member. If the pastor, a contractor, says something, it wouldn’t be relevant to the organization’s tax status, any more than if the painter or the furnace man says something. The IRS of course understands this, they wrote the rules. That’s why the IRS doesn’t prosecute. There’s nothing to prosecute. Americans United doesn’t understand this, and is the butt of the joke here.

    None of the above applies to Franklin Graham, who is an officer of Samaritan’s Purse, the nonprofit org that he founded and runs. Mr. Graham is skirting the law. The pastors of Alliance Defending Freedom, on the other hand, are just having a little fun with the atheists.

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    I just re-read my post, and it’s not as clear as it could be. The point is that, in the evangelical world, the church and the pastor are usually separate legal entities in the eyes of the IRS. The church is a tax-exempt org, the pastor is not and pays taxes. The IRS knows this, and knows that it can not hold the church liable for what the pastor, a separate legal entity, may have said. The pastors no doubt also know this, and are probably just playing an annual practical joke on Americans United. The above does not apply to Franklin Graham, who, unlike the pastors, is the CEO of a non-profit org.

  • An-Toan

    “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ). Matthew 22:21

  • spawn44

    The lefts MEANS WILL JUSTIFY THEIR END

  • Joe The Pimpernel

    How many tax-exempt organizations has the Community Organizer-in-Chief created to campaign for him?

    Not to mention the crime syndicate formerly known as ACORN.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    1 1/2 years may as well be 1 1/2 light years in the political universe.

    As for everything in Washington being politically strategized, I agree. Strategically winning an election was probably the motives behind the current administrations choice to use the IRS against their political opponents, the cover up of Benghazi and the seizure of Associated Press phone records.

  • larryclyons

    and what does that have to do with a religious group’s flouting our laws?

  • larryclyons

    and what does that have to do with a religious group openly flouting our laws?

    Except for what those tiny voices in your head say that is.

  • larryclyons

    they give up their tax benefits and they squeel like stuck pigs. Only louder and more obnoxiously.

    Churches should not be tax exempt. At one point nearly 230 years or so ago it may have made sense but it hasn’t for at least a century. Let those lazy slug actually work for a living.

  • fritzilou

    One question Mr Lynn, how many left wing churches were audited? Just ‘askin’.

  • Longdrycreek

    Larry . . . What contribution do you make to society or the greater good? I am one of the lazy slugs, as you call us, but until you know why tax exempt status is given to certain voluntary and
    eleemosany institutions, you are filled with opinion and inflated with hot air?

  • citizenclinton

    It’s typical of the left to display their “soft racism of lowered expectations.” They demand from white churches and religious institutions a far higher standard of ethical behavior than they do from black churches and religious institutions. Graham has never even approached the “improper partisan politicking” of thousands of black churches. From Harlem, to Philly, to Atlanta, to Dallas, to Oakland and thousands of places in between, black churches actively rally for political candidates and openly preach politics from the pulpit. They organize voter registration drives and even bus their congregations to the polls, openly preaching the importance of their voting for Democratic candidates.
    But white liberals like Barry Lynn ignore all that, simply because they don’t expect black people to play by the same rules as white people. At their core, many white liberals mask their inherent racist beliefs as “tolerance” or “empathy.” Kind, paternal, condescending bigots.

  • edismae

    I don’t understand why that is such a hard concept for Christians to grasp, along with “My kingdom is not of this world”.

    What do they think those statements by Jesus on the separation of church and any state could possibly mean except just that?

  • AbrahamYeshuratnam

    There’s nothing wrong in the full page advertisement which asked voters to vote for candidates who supported biblical principles and for those who protect the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. The advertisers have not misused their freedom. Although bulk of Christians voted for Romney, the demographic landscape in today’s America with non-Christians and immigrants who form the majority enabled, according to political columnists, Obama to win. But the witch hunting by IRS is targeted against people who are not Democrats. Why wealthy Muslim and Hindu organizations are not targeted?

  • smitisan

    Great. Let’s go back to white folks making the rules for blacks. That worked just swell, didn’t it?

  • smitisan

    Well then, you need to talk to citizenclinton up there and explain to him why Jeremiah Wright can say whatever he wants.

  • Catken1

    “There’s nothing wrong in the full page advertisement which asked voters to vote for candidates who supported biblical principles and for those who protect the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. The advertisers have not misused their freedom.”

    Yes, they have, as political activism is not generally privileged with tax deduction.
    As for “protecting the biblical definition of marriage” – that’s a whiny lie, based on your own inability to trust your beliefs and your sort of marriage to be worthwhile. If you need to whine to government for special favoritism for your sort of marriage, special privileges others can’t have, because you can’t convince others of the benefits of abiding by your religion’s beliefs about marriage through reason or persuasion yourself, then you don’t deserve the protection.

  • Catken1

    “At any rate, the definition of marriage is as much a BIBLICAL issue as it is a political one”

    Not with respect to civil marriage. You have no right to demand that others follow Biblical law in order to enter into a civil contract, any more than another person has the right to “define” contract law to require you to follow Sharia law in seeking employment or selling your car.

  • Catken1

    Why should a church that does no charitable activity whatsoever, and spends most of its time arguing against other people’s right not to follow its laws, get tax exemption automatically, whereas a charitable atheist group has to go through scrutiny?

  • smitisan

    The whole point of the article is that churches are not being audited.

  • smitisan

    “smitisan, people died because of some really dumb decisions which came from somewhere in this administration. I find it odd that you consider the investigation into the matter to be nothing more than political.”
    Four people died in an attack on a CIA site, and there have been nine hearings convened by Republicans over something that witnesses say was so vicious, so coordinated and so quick that even had there been more troops there, some people would still have died. NINE hearings. More than fifty died in a dozen similar attacks during the last Republican administration, and there were three hearings. I find it odd that you don’t consider these “investigations” to be anything but political grandstanding of the worst sort, what with all the crocodile tears from the side that voted to cut $300 million from the State Department’s security budget.

  • counterww1

    Coming from you Catken, whining? You whine better than most.

  • Bob Bartlett

    This article is designed to do one thing, to blame Christians for the immoral and corrupt policies of the Obama administration. They would have prefered the article to say to vote for the candidate who supports the killiing of umborn babies, who supports gays in the military but institutes a do not ask do not tell policy for Christians in the military and a moral policy of the end justfies the means. The author needs to be reminded that America was founded on Christian principals but had the common sense to insist on the fredom of all religons. Now we are instituting a policy of freedom of only certain religons. This administration would not have all these scandals if they had the morals and the love for MY COUNTRY as the founding fathers did.