News and Notes

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

In past columns I have criticized President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partner-ships. It was Obama’s attempt to correct the flaws of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives created by George W. Bush, which was nothing more than an apparatus for dispensing government funds to evangelical Christian ministries for charitable social programs. Obama promised to create a partnership between religion and government, to strengthen religion and to give it a role in setting the national agenda.  

Obama promised, as soon as he took office, to stop funding faith-based organizations that practiced religious discrimination in employment.  He ignored his promise, however, and did not put it on the agenda for the Advisory Council. That first council completed its work with a 163-page document delivered in March of 2010, containing reports on Reform of the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office, Economic Recovery and Domestic Poverty, Fatherhood and Healthy Families, Interreligious Cooperation, Environment and Climate Change and Global Poverty and Development. In the two years since, however, I have heard nothing more about the Council.That first Council disbanded, and Obama has to date appointed only 12 of the 25 members of the second Council. The new Council will not convene until all the members have been named.   

The reason for the long delay is not at all clear. The White House claims that 70% of the recommendations in the original report have been at least partially implemented, and that Obama is committed to launching the second Council. If the Council were at all in operation, the White House would have loved to point to it in response to political sniping that he is conducting a “war against religion.”

A big story for conservatives in March is an apparent investigation by the Internal Revenue Service into the activities of Tea Party groups. At issue is whether they qualify for 501(c)(4) tax exempt status. They are crying foul because of questions that the IRS has sent them, asking about their members, donors and activities, and for Board meeting minutes.   

This is an issue that would normally not warrant mention in this column, as it is not directly a question of church/state separation. However, Minnesota Atheists is itself a tax exempt organization, and we are quite aware of the prohibitions against direct electoral participation. We want to be assured that non-profit groups that oppose us on separation of church and state also play by the rules.

We are not truly on equal footing. Minnesota Atheists’ tax exemption derives from Section 501(c)(3), as an educational organization. We are permitted to engage in issue advocacy, including very limited lobbying, but not to endorse candidates for office or to contribute to a political campaign. By contrast, organizations that are exempt from taxes under Section 501(c)(4) are afforded rather greater political leeway. While they can do more lobbying than a 501(c)(3), they are classed as “social welfare” organizations, such as business associations and labor unions, and may not have the primary purpose of political advocacy.

Yet if you go to many web sites run by these Tea Party chapters, or read the literature they publish and distribute, you find that they give every impression that their reason for existence is entirely for political campaigning. The IRS must determine if their actual conduct is primarily for the benefit of their members and society as a whole, or electioneering.  Donations made for a political campaign not only do not qualify for a tax write-off, donors of more than $13,000 annually may also be liable to pay a 35% gift tax.

The Tea party chapters claim that the IRS is trying to intimidate them with their questions, to frighten them away from the exercise of their constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. They say that they are guilty of nothing more than the political advocacy which is the right of every citizen, for which they are receiving Gestapo-like suppression. But they are in fact not being subjected to a criminal investigation. The FBI has not been called in. All of the questions that have been raised by the IRS are for information that they need to decide if these groups satisfy the requirements for a tax exemption. If it is too odious to answer the questions, they should simply withdraw their applications.

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