By Kirk Petersen
A group called Jews Choose Trump has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether the National Cathedral violated its tax-exempt status by denouncing President Donald Trump’s racial rhetoric.
However, recent history suggests there is virtually no chance the National Cathedral will have to start paying taxes on its more than $17 million in annual revenue, or on its immensely valuable hilltop property at the intersection of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues, three miles from the White House.
Jews Choose Trump said in a news release:
The Cathedral urged all Americans to act against President Trump, saying explicitly that “After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough?” In issuing this statement, the Cathedral has crossed the line that bars tax-exempt entities from engaging in partisan political activity.
The 1954 Johnson Amendment prohibited churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates, and the IRS says: “Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of excise tax.”
But partisan churches have dared the IRS for years to come after them, by explicitly endorsing candidates. Since 2008, an organization called Alliance Defending Freedom has sponsored “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” which
… encourages pastors to exercise their constitutionally protected freedom to speak truth into every area of life from the pulpit. Alliance Defending Freedom also hopes to eventually go to court to have the Johnson Amendment struck down as unconstitutional for its regulation of sermons, which are protected by the First Amendment.
In the first Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008, Pastor Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minnesota, endorsed John McCain for president and told his parishioners they could not vote for Barack Obama because of Obama’s position on abortion.
Booth told TLC that the IRS opened an investigation into his church but dropped it the following year, “due to an internal procedural issue.” Booth said he could not get a more specific reason.
“Of course we didn’t want them to drop that investigation, because we want to go to court,” he said, adding “we’ve just declared victory — it’s like fighting against a lion that has no teeth.”
He said that despite the fact that the statement from leaders of the National Cathedral was from the opposite end of the political spectrum, he supported their right to speak their mind.
According to Professor Elizabeth Schmidt of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst,
As far as we know, however, only one church has ever lost its exemption for violating the Johnson Amendment. In 2000 the D.C. Circuit affirmed an IRS decision to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Church of Pierce Creek after it published full-page ads in two major newspapers opposing presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
The IRS itself says it has sometimes launched investigations, but:
As we are primarily interested in educating organizations and promoting compliance, in most of these cases, we alerted the organization to the violation and strongly cautioned them not to repeat the activity.
Ironically, Trump claimed in 2017 that he had “gotten rid of the Johnson Amendment.” Politifact rated the claim “mostly false,” saying that Trump “merely directed the Treasury Department to be lenient in its enforcement of the law.”
The ADF and officials at the National Cathedral and the Diocese of Washington did not respond to requests for comment.