When Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, endorsed presidential candidate Rick Perry on his church's website in October, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State promptly asked the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for an investigation.
Since passage of the Johnson Amendment in 1954, churches "may not participate in, or intervene in … any political campaign," according to the IRS.
Churches that don't comply could lose their tax-exempt status.
In theory. But it seems no one, not even Americans United, is expecting a quick response from the IRS.
"Right now the situation is in a holding pattern because the IRS has found its internal policies under fire by federal court ruling," said senior policy analyst Rob Boston.
A 1984 federal ruling told the IRS it needed a regional commissioner to sign off on any audits done on churches. But when the IRS reorganized in 1996, it eliminated the regional commissioner position. A Minnesota church recently argued that its IRS audit wasn't authorized by a high-enough official. In January, a federal court agreed.
Until the IRS sorts out who can authorize church audits, churches are left in limbo, said Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) senior legal counsel Erik Stanley.
"It has become an intolerable system of self-censorship," he said. "Society labels biblical issues as political, and pastors just back away."
Only one church has ever had its tax-exempt status revoked: a New York church that ran full-page newspaper ads warning voters away from Bill Clinton in 1992.
The IRS may be weak on enforcing the Johnson Amendment because of its questionable constitutionality, said Sally Wagenmaker, a tax attorney who works with nonprofits.
A constitutional challenge is the ...1