Before this week's Senate vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment, churches all over the country watched Focus on the Family President James Dobson urge congregants to call their Senators. Focus on the Family, however is limited by Internal Revenue Service restrictions from advocating too heavily for the amendment. Focus spends less than 0.2 percent of its total contributions on political activities. That amount has not done the job, and when Dobson spoke last weekend, he did so as the head of Focus on the Family Action, an organization under IRS rules that allows political activities.

"[T]he attack and assault on marriage is so distressing that I just feel like I can't remain silent," Focus president James Dobson toldThe New York Times. In response, Focus is currently going through the difficult process of shifting its political activities, ramping up those efforts, and incorporating them into Focus on the Family Action, a nonprofit that is free to lobby and participate in political campaigns.

Dobson wrote in a July 2004 Action Newsletter, "The primary difference between the two ministries is that FOF can provide a tax deduction for its contributors but is extremely limited in its ability to lobby for its core principles. By contrast, Focus Action can devote every dollar contributed to defend what we believe, but cannot offer a tax-deduction for the money donated."

Peter Brandt, director of issues response, at Focus on the Family Action says that as the culture becomes more hostile to Christian values, "It's going to become increasingly important to make that distinction between what Focus does in the area of redemptive ministry and helpful ministry and what Focus [Action] does in the political realm."

Distinction isn't so clear

Though creating Focus on the Family Action may be a straightforward matter of a legal incorporation under IRS code 501(c)4 instead of 501(c)3, it is not merely a matter of forming a new organization. "There's no simple way to describe who's what," said Brandt. "Those of us who tended to be involved in policy before are spending a greater proportion of our time on Focus on the Family Action."

But there are no new offices, no separate buildings, and no unique support staff. In the office, sitting next to a Focus on the Family fax machine is another one for Focus on the Family Action. "People on my staff keep track of, in tenth of an hour blocks, the time that they are spending doing these various things," Brandt said.

Focus on the Family Action pays its employees for all their work, then bill Focus on the Family for the work employees do for it, which may be a majority of their time. "There are some folks who are spending all of their time, or a large proportion of their time, on Focus on the Family Action, and there are some people who are spending only a small amount of their time on Focus on the Family Action activities." Support staff, such as in human resources and purchasing departments, also do work for both organizations. Focus personnel said other issues, such as employee benefits and member list rentals, are in compliance with IRS regulations, though they declined to give details.

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"There are 10 or 15 Focus on the Family Action projects that have been approved within the ministry. So only those employees who are [Action] employees are allowed to work on those projects," Brandt said. By keeping track of time employees spend on different projects, Focus on the Family Action pays a proportionate amount of wages and overhead, including rent. Focus on the Family has so far declined to comment on how the relationship affects member list rental or employee benefits.

"The question immediately came to us: Can a (c)3 list a press release of a (c)4?" Brandt said. "We quickly noted that no, this has to go on the Focus on the Family Action web site." That press release is currently not on either the Focus on the Family or Focus nor the Family Action web sites.

"There's a learning curve that we have to be extremely diligent about, because we're dealing with Internal Revenue Service regulations," Brandt said.

Fundraising presents another hurdle. Because donors can make tax-deductible contributions to Focus on the Family while donations to Focus on the Family Action are not tax-deductible, each organization has to make donors aware who they are giving money to. "Our fundraising activities for Focus on the Family Action are separate from fundraising activities for Focus on the Family," Brandt said.

Not all political activities are 'political'

Focus on the Family Action's first goal is to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment. Part of that project includes Dobson's "Battle for Marriage" simulcast that was broadcast on radio, television, the Internet, and in participating churches. Focus on the Family Action has also taken out newspaper advertisements, lobbied for legislation, and pressured senators as the Senate moves to a vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment.

However, according to the IRS, tax-exempt non-profits may participate in activity that does not intervene in political campaigns or attempt to influence legislation. Focus on the Family may continue to educate voters, speak out on cultural issues, and hold voter registration drives. "They're permissible activities for any c(3) nonprofit to do because they're not partisan and they do not deal with specific legislation," Brandt said.

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With the freedom to engage directly in politics, Focus on the Family Action hopes to do what Focus on the Family could not. "We may actually move from a culture that is not just hostile to maybe some of our cultural values, but hostile to our ability to evangelize and preach the gospel," said Brandt. To prevent that shift, Focus on the Family Action will do much more than register and educate voters.

Related Elsewhere:

Weblog wrote about Jim Dobson's reluctant entrance into the political arena.

More information about the ministries at Focus on the Family are available from its web site.

Focus on the Family Action has information about why the organization was created, how to participate, and news of its activities.

A recent CT Q&A with James Dobson discussed his concern over the Federal Marriage Amendment.

Other Christianity Today articles about Focus on the Family include:

Weblog: Focus on the Family Suit Reinstated (Sept. 16, 2003)
New Leader at Focus | Dobson turns to an old friend to stabilize his organization. (May 09, 2003)
Weblog: Focus on the Family Appoints Former U.S. Secretary of Energy as President (April 15, 2003)
Weblog: Focus on the Family Lays Off 34, Cuts $5 Million (Feb. 06, 2003)
Weblog: Focus on the Family, Others Oppose Disney World Decision to Cut Back Religious Services (Dec. 18, 2002)
Weblog: Calvary Chapel Radio Drops 'Graphic' Focus on the Family (Oct. 11, 2002)
Weblog: Focus on the Family Focuses On Its Future (July 29, 2002)
'Get Our Kids Out' | Dobson says pro-gay school curriculum has gone too far. (July 29, 2002)
Weblog: Dobson Writes off Big Brothers/Big Sisters over Gay Volunteer Policy (July 25, 2002)
Broadcasters Aim to Cool NRB Controversy | Dobson, Neff make gestures to mend wounds. (March 08, 2002)
Weblog: Mike Trout Says Emotional Affair Forced His Resignation from Focus on the Family (Oct. 18, 2000)
Mike Trout Quits Focus on the Family | James Dobson's co-host of 15 years cites personal reasons for abrupt departure. (Oct. 13, 2000)