El Cajon Church Hosting Pre-Primary Election Forum, Not Fearing IRS Peril

Craig Huey (inset) returns to Foothills Christian Church for an election forum before the state's June primary. A fall forum also is planned.
Craig Huey (inset) returns to Foothills Christian Church for an election forum before the state’s June primary. A fall forum also is planned. Times of San Diego photo illustration

For at least the fifth time in recent years, El Cajon’s Foothills Christian Church is featuring conservative pundit Craig Huey at an election forum — this time in the sanctuary.

IRS Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations (PDF)

“Bring your ballots for a good review and discussion of how we can apply our Heavenly Citizenship to our Earthly one!” says the nondenominational church.

Huey, who made failed runs for Congress in 2011 and state Assembly in 2012 and later moved to Tennessee, is the author of “The Christian Voter: 7 Non-Negotiables For Voting For, Not Against, Your Values” and “The Deep State: 15 Surprising Dangers You Should Know.”

He also might be expert in nonprofit tax law.

According to Russ Park, the volunteer ministry leader helping organize the pre-primary forum May 15, Huey never violates the Johnson Amendment — a part of the IRS Code that prohibits 501(c)(3) tax-exempt groups like churches from certain political activities.

“Mind you, you’ll probably hear in his voice some disdain for a particular person because of their position,” Park said Tuesday in a phone interview. “But [Huey] never specifically comes out and says: This is a bad, evil person — don’t vote for them.”

Park, a 64-year-old cybersecurity computer consultant living in Lakeside, is familiar with suspicions about forums like his — being organized by the church’s Salt & Light Council.

“We have every right to bring in a knowledgeable speaker who has studied the issues and the candidates, who can judge them according to merit,” Park says. 

Huey merely rates the candidates based on a “clearly expressed list of values,” Park says. “[Huey] doesn’t say: Vote for this guy because he says he’s pro-life. Just so you know what (he stands for).”

San Diego IRS spokesman Raphael Tulino wouldn’t comment on the Foothills Church event.

In fact, he says, federal law prevents him from talking about any specific case, unless a criminal charge has been unsealed — such as that involving Chabad of Poway Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.

Asked how often (and why) churches lose their tax-exempt status — and ability to offer donors tax deductions — Tulino, an IRS spokesman for 20 years, directed a reporter to IRS reports and its Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations.

According to the 2020 IRS Data Book, 1,417 churches and charities were audited in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2020. That’s out of 1.4 million such nonprofits in existence. The Data Book doesn’t say how many churches lost their non-taxed status.

But generic examples of political activity in the IRS Tax Guide suggest Foothills Church could be crossing the line.

The general rule is: All Section 501(c)(3) groups “must not participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

An election forum like Foothills’ — which has drawn 250 in pre-pandemic years — isn’t addressed in the IRS examples. But one says:

“Church S … distributes a voter guide during an election campaign. The voter guide is prepared using the responses of candidates to a questionnaire sent to candidates for major public offices. Although the questionnaire covers a wide range of topics, the wording of the questions evidences a bias on certain issues. By using a questionnaire structured in this way, Church S is [illegally] participating or intervening in a political campaign.”

In November 2017, the IRS issued a reminder that federal law bars churches and charities from “becoming directly or indirectly involved in campaigns of political candidates.”

It added: “Violation of the law can result in imposition of an excise tax or, in extreme cases, a loss of tax exempt status.”

That same year, NPR asked itself: Have any churches landed in trouble for violating the Johnson Amendment?

Its finding: “Not really. … Since 2008, the Alliance Defending Freedom has organized ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday,’ encouraging pastors to give explicitly political sermons in defiance of the law. The IRS, however, has rarely moved to take away a church’s tax exemption.”

Only one of more than 2,000 Christian clergy deliberately challenging the law since 2008 has been audited, and none has been punished, NPR noted, citing The Washington Post.

Foothills minister Park says one audit involved a Black clergy member who endorsed Barack Obama while he was present at the church. The church got a warning letter, he said.

Although former President Trump boasted about “getting rid of” the Johnson Amendment, he didn’t, Park said. Trump just issued an executive order in May 2017 limiting its enforcement.

“It has been widely reported that the Johnson Amendment is not currently being enforced,” said the National Law Review. “In this light, the executive order is unlikely to have any practical effect.”

One theory why the Biden Administration might not punish churches for overt politicking is that a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court majority might strike down the Johnson Amendment (named for Lyndon Johnson, who as a U.S. senator introduced a draft of the law in July 1954).

Speaker Huey appeared at Foothills Church in 2016, 2018 and 2020. His talk May 15 will be recorded by the church and posted on YouTube, says Park, the unpaid pastor. (Huey lists 50 churches where he’s spoken, including San Diego’s Rock Church and First Christian Church of Chula Vista.)

As far as politicking, Park says the church event is going to go “right up to the line and do it loudly. And I have full support of my pastors to do so.”

He said earlier: “Anyone with half a brain will see — yeah, duh, we all line up with this value, so you’re saying this is the right guy.”

IRS spokesman Tulino noted a complaint form for people concerned about suspected IRS violations.

But has Park, the unpaid pastor, ever heard from critics?

“If anyone has ever complained, it’s not got back to me,” he said.

diana

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