Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, June 12, 2010 11:11 pm

Equal rights for some people


Mormons have a cramped view of liberty, and I’m delighted to report that it’s going to cost them:

The state Fair Political Practices Commission is expected to fine the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for not properly reporting about $37,000 worth of contributions to pass California’s ban on same-sex marriages. The commission will fine the Salt Lake City-based church $5,538 for failing to report the numerous contributions.

Granted, the church ought to be paying a fine equivalent to the total value of its contribution to the effort. If I recall correctly, it is incorporated as a 501c3 tax-exempt charity, so it also ought to be losing its tax exemption and be assessed back taxes for the period during which it was violating the federal ban on political activity by charities. But I’ll take what I can get.

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10 Comments

  1. Lex,
    For a former newspaper journalist you have an annoying habit of reporting only the facts that fit your worldview. In fact there were no monetary contributions made. Reading further down the link that you provide:

    “The investigation revealed that the church unintentionally failed to file daily reports detailing approximately $37,000 in non-monetary contributions,” a statement on the church’s website read. “The amount of contributions not reported represented the cost of staff time spent by church employees on activities to help the Yes on 8 committee during the final two weeks of the election.”

    Okay, the church had staff that worked to pass the proposition that were paid by church funds. The failed to report that and were fined appropriately, despite your affectations to the opposite.
    What’s your beef with the Mormon church? Is it their generosity? Is it their extensive missionary work? Or is it that they are not Anti-Israeli like the PCUSA?

    Comment by Jon A Firebaugh — Sunday, June 13, 2010 2:08 pm @ 2:08 pm

  2. Jon, please point out what facts I have omitted that change the truth here.

    You seem to be arguing that because the “contributions” of the Mormon Church were in-kind rather than cash, they don’t count. Wrong. The law requires them in-kind contributions to be assessed at fair-market value and counted as a contribution accordingly. (One reason former Gov. Mike Easley, current Gov. Bev Perdue and other politicians around the country are in legal hot water is that they have failed to follow this rule: report the in-kind contribution — a ride on a donor’s private plane, say — as a contribution or else use campaign funds to repay the contributor the fair-market value of the in-kind contribution.)

    My beef with the Mormon Church is that it is using the power of government to deny certain Americans rights it expects its own membership to be able to enjoy. From a theological standpoint, that’s a textbook violation of Christ’s Second Great Commandment.

    From a constitutional standpoint, as I’ve said before, under the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment, churches should be free to marry, or refuse to marry, whomever they want, but that needs to be a strictly religious ceremony. If government is going to get involved and bestow certain legal civil rights and privileges on married people that it denies the unmarried, then according to the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, it needs to treat all legally competent adults alike with respect to the ability to marry whom one chooses.

    Comment by Lex — Sunday, June 13, 2010 3:37 pm @ 3:37 pm

  3. Also, charitable nonprofits incorporated as 501c3s are barred by federal law from partisan political activity. Working on behalf of one side in a statewide referendum is partisan political activity. This activity should cost the CJCLDS its tax excemption, and it should be assessed back taxes on the revenue it received during the period in which it was violating the law.

    Comment by Lex — Sunday, June 13, 2010 3:39 pm @ 3:39 pm

  4. You stated: “Also, charitable nonprofits incorporated as 501c3s are barred by federal law from partisan political activity.”
    Sorry Lex, but a ballot proposition doesn’t meet the definition of “partisan”, so your argument for revocation of tax status falls apart for that single reason. The facts you omitted don’t change the truth, that declaring the “in kind” contributions were omitted, but your characterizations are biased
    The fines assessed are proper, the church should have reported the activity as a contribution, but revoking their tax status is ridiculous in this circumstance. I’m guessing that the higher ups in the JCLDS have quietly issued their rebukes to the locals.
    This brings up an interesting point though. What if all these people had two week vacations available and all took their vacations at the same time to support a ballot initiative What if it could be verified that none of them took another vacation during the year. Does that qualify as an in kind contribution anyway? What if you take a paid sick day or personal day from your job and make calls on behalf of a local political candidate? Does that mean the private college you work for should lose their tax status since you were paid while providing partisan support?
    My view is that churches are not organized for the expressed purpose of effecting political change or discourse, but a high percentage of non-profits are structured for this purpose only.
    If the church wants to support a ballot initiative which is by nature non-partisan, they should be able to do so, but should definately report their time as activities.
    Isn’t it interesting that the left blogoshpere is ripping Elton John, (an openly gay person for decades) for performing at Rush Limbaugh’s recent wedding.
    But even Elton says gay people don’t get married, they have civil unions, a position that Rush himself actually supports, as do I.
    The problem isn’t contitutional rights, it’s one of definition. Same sex couples should not be denied employment, credit, insurance, survivor status, or other rights afforded to traditional couples, but to call it marriage, well that’s a definition most people reserve for traditinal couples. If it’s about rights as you state, then a “Civil Union” should be sufficient.
    But it’s not about rights, that’s a smokescreen. Even the gay community is not all for defining same sex couples as “married” couples. It’s only those individuals with a deep seated neurosis about being gay that seek to call it “marriage”. The gay community has a large number of people who have the courage and resolve to stand up and say that they are gay by lifestyle choice in the face of condemnation by a large portion of society, and I applaud them. The others seek to codify same sex “marriage” into law, under the guise of denied rights when civil unions should provide those rights.

    Comment by Jon A Firebaugh — Tuesday, June 15, 2010 8:55 am @ 8:55 am

  5. IRS Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations, page 7:

    In general, no organization, including a church, may qualify for IRC section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). An IRC section 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.

    Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive offices), or by the public in a referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or similar procedure. It does not include actions by executive, judicial, or administrative bodies.
    A church or religious organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.

    Churches and religious organizations may, however, involve themselves in issues of public policy without
    the activity being considered as lobbying. For example, churches may conduct educational meetings, prepare
    and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

    Sorry, Jon, but the facts have an anti-Jon bias.

    Incidentally, that last graf I quoted is not an out for the Mormons. It means that religious groups can do voter-education stuff, including voter guides, BUT they have to be truly educational, not advocating a candidate or side. I explored that issue in some depth in an N&R article I did on the Christian Coalition in ’96; it is not online, but it’s accessible through the Greensboro public library’s website if you have a library card and want to go look for it (publication date 10/27/96). Here’s the info from it that speaks to this issue:

    IRS GUIDELINES

    According to federal tax law, social-welfare nonprofit groups such as the Christian Coalition [501(c)(4) nonprofits — Lex] may engage in some partisan political activity as long as it is not their primary focus. Churches and other charitable nonprofits [501(c)(3) nonprofits — Lex] may not engage in any such activity, including producing or distributing statements on behalf of or against a candidate or party. Such groups may distribute nonpartisan voter guides. The Internal Revenue Service says it looks at each case individually and looks at factors in addition to the guide in making rulings, but it also offers some general guidelines for what constitutes a nonpartisan guide. (These guidelines apply only to tax-exempt groups, not political action committees or individuals.)

    — The wording of a question or issue should not show a preference, or bias, for or against a particular position.

    — A guide that covers a wide range of issues, and is distributed only to a nonprofit group’s membership or regular mailing list, is more likely to be ruled nonpartisan. A guide that covers a narrow range of issues and is widely distributed to the public runs a greater risk of being ruled partisan.

    — A questionnaire sent to candidates for the purpose of preparing a voter guide should be sent to all candidates on the ballot in a particular race.

    — A guide prepared on the basis of such a questionnaire should report all candidates’ responses, or none. If one or more candidates in a particular race don’t respond, the guide should omit all responses from candidates in that race.

    — A guide should use only candidates’ direct responses to surveys or questionnaires. It should not attempt to define a candidate’s position on an issue on the basis of the candidate’s public statements or voting record.

    — A guide should report candidates’ complete answers to surveys or questionnaires. If a question asks for a yes-or-no answer, and the candidate responds in some way other than yes or no, the guide should report the candidate’s response verbatim.

    SOURCES: Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code; IRS Revenue Rulings 78-248 and 80-282; Sam Serio, spokesman for the Baltimore IRS office, which oversees tax-exempt corporations in the Southeast.

    The facts remain: The CJCLDS is in clear violation of the law. In point of fact, for purely political reasons administrations of both parties have hesitated to enforce the law against large religious organizations for fear of voter retribution, even when, as was the case with the Christian Coalition, the evidence of violation of the law was overwhelming.

    Your faith in the good sense of the “higher-ups” of the Church, while touching, has no basis in the law and seems ill-advised in light of the church’s long history of racism and other clear violations of Christ’s commandments.

    Your question about the efforts of individuals is a good one. As far as the federal government is concerned, any individual remains free to vote for whomever he wishes, contribute to whomever he wishes (subject to limits and disclosure requirements) and so forth. But if organizational resources (that is, Church resources) come into play, then the Church has violated the law.

    You claim that “a high percentage of non-profits are structured for this purpose only,” “this purpose” being “the expressed purpose of effecting political change or discourse.” Well, to a certain extent that’s true; political-action committees, for example, are one form of nonprofit. But if you’re talking specifically about charitable nonprofits — 501 (c) (3) organizations — or even civic nonprofits (501c4s, which have slightly less restrictive rules), you’d be wrong. When a charity or civic nonprofit incorporates and applies for a tax exemption, it has to state what its tax-exempt purpose is. That purpose has to be selected from a list of purposes for which the IRS grants tax exemptions; you can’t just make up a new one. And then every year the organization has to file a Form 990, which is public, showing how its money was spent in support of that tax-exempt purpose.

    What Elton John thinks is neither interesting to me nor relevant to this discussion.

    You state, “Same sex couples should not be denied employment, credit, insurance, survivor status, or other rights afforded to traditional couples, but to call it marriage, well that’s a definition most people reserve for traditional couples. If it’s about rights as you state, then a “Civil Union” should be sufficient.”

    Jon, we actually agree here.

    As you should have learned around eighth grade, constitutional rights aren’t about what “most people” think. They are rights under the law that, according to the law, are supposed to be available to everyone. (Supreme Court rulings have carved out exceptions for children, of course, as well as some other exceptions, but they’re pretty few and far between. In fact, most historic SCOTUS case law on civil rights can be boiled down to “What part of EQUAL don’t you understand?”) That’s what the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment means.

    I take the position that under the establishment clause of the First Amendment, government needs to get out of the marriage business, leave that to the churches (who, under the free-expression clause of that same amendment, can marry, or refuse to marry, whomever they please), and give all adult couples, hetero- or homo-, the same legal rights and privileges. As long as everybody’s treated equally, you can call it whatever you like as far as I’m concerned.

    Comment by Lex — Tuesday, June 15, 2010 5:42 pm @ 5:42 pm

  6. Oh, and Jon, while you’re licking your wounds, go rent this and learn just how blunt Mormon efforts at political leverage were … and how Prop. 8 was far from the first time the Church had engaged in them.

    Comment by Lex — Wednesday, June 16, 2010 10:24 pm @ 10:24 pm

  7. Lex,
    Well, we agree on equal rights for all citizens.

    Before I go on however let’s clear the air about whether I agree with all of the tenets or positions of the LDS church. The answer is emphatically no. And further, if the church intimidated some members to contribute, I find that repugnant.

    My comments relate only to your misinformation regarding their right to act on behalf of of a non-partisan ballot initiative.

    You state:
    “Your faith in the good sense of the “higher-ups” of the Church, while touching, has no basis in the law and seems ill-advised in light of the church’s long history of racism and other clear violations of Christ’s commandments.”
    What the heck are you talking about? My comment expressed no support for the “higher ups” whatsoever. I merely expressed my view that somebody was surely rebuked for failing to account for all “in kind” expenditures, I didn’t infer that had any basis in law, and further I’m not interested in your opinion of the LDS vis a vis race or Christ’s commandments as they have no bearing on their tax status. I’m well aware of the positions past and present of the LDS church.
    Your reading non-existent implications into my comment and injecting your disdain for the LDS into a discussion of their right to “lobby” which has no connection to the issue at hand.

    This ballot proposition became the most expensive non-presidential election in history. Close to $40M was spent by advocates on each side.

    From the Alliance for Justice website:

    “501(c)(3)s can support or oppose ballot measures and encourage the
    public to vote accordingly. Even though 501(c)(3)s cannot support or
    oppose candidates for public office, they can urge voters to support or
    oppose particular ballot measures. The IRS considers ballot measure
    work to be a lobbying activity because members of the voting public act
    as legislators when they vote “yes” or “no” on the legislation proposed in ballot measures.

    As you have pointed out:
    “In general, no organization, including a church, may qualify for IRC section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). ”

    The pertinent question is what constitutes “substantial”.

    From the Nonprofit Law Blog John D Columbo :
    “For example, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Christian Echoes National Ministry v. United States, 470 F.2d 849 (1972) refused to adopt a bright-line mathematical test for “substantiality,” instead focusing on the centrality of lobbying to the overall mission of the organization in question:”

    Further he states ” I think it is fair to say that based on the case record, virtually the entire message of Christian Echoes had lobbying overtones. In contrast, the major denominational churches in the U.S., such as the Catholic Church and LDS, do many, many other things than lobby. Each would undoubtedly take the position that their primary purpose is to spread their religious message, and that this is what they do on a daily basis (along with programs to help the poor, promote social justice and so forth). And in fact, such a statement is true. LDS’s (and the Catholic Church’s) involvement with Proposition 8 in “the context of [its] objectives and circumstances” was simply a small, incidental part of their ministry, particularly when compared to the record in Christian Echoes.”

    and “even though the 10th Circuit declined to adopt any kind of mathematical test, it is almost certainly the case that the amount of time, money, and other resources spent on lobbying at least would be probative of the “substantiality” of lobbying to the overall mission of the organization in question. And again, on this front whatever efforts were expended by the LDS on Proposition 8 pale in comparison to the size of their overall operation.”

    he continues: “So . . . some friendly advice for those folks who think they’ve got a legitimate shot at getting the IRS to revoke LDS’s exemption based on its Proposition 8 activities: find a more productive use of your time.”

    The existing case law does not put a mathematical threshold in either fixed or percentage terms to the dollar amount of lobbying. As a proportion of the activities of the LDS church, the actual effort of the church on prop 8 could in no way be determined to be a “substantial” part of their mission, if applying the 10th circuits ” centrality of lobbying to the overall mission” test. or if you prefer, the portion of the LDS assets or income as compared to the amount spent on Prop 8.

    The facts don’t have an anti-Jon bias, I’m not licking my invisible wounds, and Lex, don’t hold your breath waiting for the LDS Church to lose their 501(c)(3) status.

    Sorry, but in spite of your personal opinion to the contrary, The LDS
    church was completely within their rights as related to IRS 501 (c)(3) to
    engage in support of Prop 8.

    Comment by Jon A Firebaugh — Friday, June 18, 2010 6:36 pm @ 6:36 pm

  8. You said:

    The fines assessed are proper, the church should have reported the activity as a contribution, but revoking their tax status is ridiculous in this circumstance.

    That’s a matter of opinion.

    You said:

    I’m guessing that the higher ups in the JCLDS have quietly issued their rebukes to the locals.

    I said:

    Your faith in the good sense of the “higher-ups” of the Church, while touching, has no basis in the law and seems ill-advised in light of the church’s long history of racism and other clear violations of Christ’s commandments.

    You said:

    I merely expressed my view that somebody was surely rebuked for failing to account for all “in kind” expenditures…

    And my point is that 1) there is zero evidence that anybody has been rebuked and 2) in light of the LDS leadership’s long history of doing exactly the wrong thing both legally and from the standpoint of Christ’s teachings, it is beyond silly to presume that the LDS leadership would do the right thing. My disdain for the LDS leadership is based on its history. Any manager will tell you that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.

    I have no doubt that John Columbo THINKS the LDS church is on safe legal ground. But what he means by that is not that the LDS Church is obeying the law, merely that they’re unlikely to suffer any consequences for breaking it, given the government’s poor record of enforcement (which I’ve already acknowledged).

    Comment by Lex — Friday, June 18, 2010 8:08 pm @ 8:08 pm

  9. Lex,

    From The California Fair Political Practices Commission Press release of June 10: (verbatim)

    “Late Contribution Reporting Violation

    When contributions of $1,000 or more are made during the final days of an election—the time between the last campaign report required to be filed and the end of the election—late contribution reports must be filed within 24 hours of making or receiving the “late” contribution. The following failed to file a late contribution report as required by law:

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints failed to timely report making late non-monetary contributions totaling $36,928 in connection with the November 4, 2008, General Election. $5,539 fine. ”

    The fine represents a statutory 15% penalty, contrary to your opinion is deemed fair by California election law.

    So lets recap, you initial post:

    You stated that the LDS church

    1: “ought to be paying a fine equivalent to the total value of its contribution to the effort.”

    2: “so it also ought to be losing its tax exemption and be assessed back taxes for the period during which it was violating the federal ban on political activity by charities”

    1. Wrong, Actually as stated above 15% is the law

    2. Wrong, Ballot propositions are not excluded from political activity (lobbying) by 501(c)(3) charities and further the For tax exempt status reasons, the time and expenditures the LDS church in support of Prop 8 can in no way be deemed to be the substantial as compared to the overall mission of the church.

    The facts also state that the LDS church cooperated in the investigation.

    OK there is zero evidence that the LDS hot shots called anyone on the carpet for this violation, but I never stated that as more than a supposition anyway, while you go off on rants of how the LDS is legally wrong (which we can dismiss as factually untrue) and the wrong from the standpoint of Christ’s teachings, which have nothing to do with the issue you raised in your first post.

    So basically Lex, your conclusions are untrue, contrary to the facts, and when confronted with the proof, you create a side issue questioning the religious validity of the LDS church. Ah the bait and switch. I’m not biting.

    Comment by Jon A Firebaugh — Sunday, June 20, 2010 10:34 am @ 10:34 am

  10. Jon, state law does not override federal law on federal tax matters.

    Enough. We’re done here.

    Comment by Lex — Sunday, June 20, 2010 10:20 pm @ 10:20 pm


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