One government worker with a security clearance owed the Internal Revenue Service $2 million, according to the General Accounting Office.
By Michael Isikoff, National Investigative Correspondent, NBC News
Thousands of tax delinquents -- including one who owes $2 million to the IRS -- have sensitive security clearances, posing a risk that has gone undetected by federal agencies, congressional investigators will report Thursday.
A report by the General Accounting Office obtained by NBC News found that 8,400 U.S. officials and contractors with access to sensitive government secrets have racked up $85 million in delinquent tax debts.
The report, due to be released Thursday morning at a Senate hearing, is the latest example of what members of Congress and investigators say are glaring weaknesses in the government’s system of vetting those receiving security clearances.
“It is absurd to give federal employees and contractors who have already failed to follow the law access to our nation’s classified information,” said Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, who requested the GAO study. “Awarding security clearances to tax cheats puts the integrity of the federal work force, along with the confidential materials entrusted with them, at greater risk.
Coburn, in a statement to NBC News, demanded that the administration take immediate steps to stop what he called the “egregious” practice of granting security clearances to tax delinquents.
A spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper declined comment, noting that the report had not yet been publicly released. But in written comments to the GAO, a Clapper aide noted that the intelligence office and the Office of Personnel Management were working with Treasury Department officials to develop a plan to check and more closely monitor government databases to identify tax delinquents with security clearances.
The GAO study did not examine members of the U.S. military or employees of U.S. intelligence agencies with clearances. Instead, it focused on a universe of 240,000 officials and contractors with clearances elsewhere in the government — such as the Homeland Security, State and Energy departments. It then took the Social Security numbers of those with clearances and plugged them into an Internal Revenue Service database of tax delinquents, yielding matches to about 4,800 individuals — about half of whom had top-secret clearances, the report says.
More than three-fourths of the tax delinquents amassed their debts only after receiving their clearances — an indication, congressional investigators said, that those with access to sensitive secrets were not being adequately monitored.
The report does not name any of the tax delinquents. But it cited several examples: One of the delinquents with a clearance owed $2 million in back taxes, the report states. Another federal contractor with a top-secret clearance didn’t file federal tax returns for several years and was granted a “conditional clearance” despite concerns among background checkers about his financial problems.
The GAO report states that an official or contractor with tax debts is “at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds” – and therefore could put national security secrets at risk. (Some high profile espionage cases, such as those of former CIA agent Aldrich Ames and FBI agent Robert Hanssen, sold secrets to Russia for cash, although neither was in debt.)
But the report notes that the current federal background check system does not check federal tax databases before granting clearances. Instead, it relies on “self-reporting” of debts and checking of credit reports – which do not disclose tax debts unless liens have been filed.
The issue of federal background checks has taken on new urgency after revelations that Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis was granted a secret clearance for 10 years despite multiple security problems in his background, including a 2002 arrest for shooting the tires of a neighbor’s car. Alexis’ arrest, which he blamed on anger problems and which did not result in criminal charges, was never fully investigated by the private company, USIS, hired to do his background check.
USIS, now the subject of a federal grand jury probe, also performed the background check of ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, failing to interview any personal references other than his girlfriend. Nor did the firm investigate a reported security violation in his past, according to a report by the Office of Director of National Intelligence.
USIS has denied any wrongdoing, saying its background checks in both instances met federal standards and that it is cooperating with the federal investigation.
Former IRS Commissioner Mark Everson, in a July 8, 2004, file photo.
By Lisa Myers and Talesha ReynoldsNBC News
A former IRS commissioner on Monday urged Congress to set up a joint congressional committee to investigate the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups, which he called “very troubling.”
While defending the overall integrity of IRS employees, Mark Everson told NBC NEWS exclusively that an “independent, strong congressional investigation to establish the facts and reassure the American people” is needed and that it can best be done thru a joint, bipartisan select committee of members from the Senate and House – a mechanism used to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
“We don’t know everything by far at this point, but what we know is bad enough,” Everson said in an interview. “Because the IRS is so central to our government—it touches on so many people—I think it’s important Congress speak with one voice.”
Everson, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and headed the IRS from 2003 to 2007, says he always believed that IRS employees at all levels did their best to be impartial.
In assessing the agency’s current difficulties, Everson said mistakes clearly were made by front-line workers in the tax-exempt unit in Cincinnati, who “lost their minds” in using criteria that targeted Tea Party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny. He said there also was inadequate supervision by managers, because after problems occurred it took two years to work out neutral criteria for dealing with applications for tax-exempt status by these groups.
Everson saved his strongest words for top IRS officials, whose failure to immediately inform Congress of the targeting he called “absolutely unforgivable.”
In March 2012, then IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman rejected complaints that conservative groups had been targeted, telling a congressional committee, “There's absolutely no targeting.” Within two months, senior IRS officials were informed that both an internal IRS investigation and a probe by the Inspector General had found conservative groups were singled out for extra scrutiny. But over the next year, that information was never shared with Congress, agency officials now acknowledge.
“It was just tragically wrong to say that there was no targeting and then not to correct the record,” Everson said, adding it “was also sort of shocking.”
Senator John McCain talks to TODAY's Savannah Guthrie about the scandals recently plaguing the IRS and his recent trip to Syria, where he met with opposition leaders.
Everson says he favors a special joint congressional committee to investigate this matter to ensure Congress gets to the bottom of what happened and in hopes of reducing political partisanship. He also wants to free tax-writing committees to focus on much-needed tax reform. Everson says he does not favor appointment of a special prosecutor at this time.
“I’m very concerned about the damage to the IRS and frankly to the country,” he said. “People trust the IRS to do a tough job but to do it fairly and that’s what’s been undermined here.”
He expressed concern that this scandal could have the same corrosive effect on the IRS as the Vietnam War did on the U.S. military if not handled properly.
Lisa Myers is NBC News senior investigative correspondent; Talesha Reynolds is a producer in NBC News Washington Bureau.
A woman who worked in the IRS Cincinnati office at the center of controversy over targeting of conservative groups says she doubts that the blame resides with front-line employees, as the agency has claimed.
By Rich Gardella and Lisa MyersNBC News
A former manager at the IRS Cincinnati office at the center of the controversy over the targeting of conservative political organizations seeking tax-exempt status tells NBC News she doesn’t think low-level employees acted on their own in flagging them for further scrutiny.
But she also said that in her time at the IRS she has never known politics or partisan motivations to play any role in the office’s work, and doesn’t think it did in this case.
Bonnie Esrig, a 38-year IRS veteran, worked as an area manager in the Determinations Unit of the IRS’ Exempt Organizations department in 2011 and 2012. According to a federal audit and IRS Congressional testimony, some employees in the unit used inappropriate selection criteria to flag the applications of Tea Party and other conservative organizations for further scrutiny, according to an audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. (Esrig worked on tax-exemption status issues in the IRS office, but for other types of organizations, such as charter schools – not on the political advocacy groups cases at the center of the controversy. She retired from the IRS in January.)
The audit released last week by the Department of the Treasury’s Inspector General for Tax Administration found that IRS employees in that unit “targeted” conservative political advocacy organizations for additional review based on keywords in their organizations’ names, such as “Tea Party.”
Esrig said that recent media headlines reporting that “rogue” agents were responsible and questioning whether the Obama Administration had played a role, surprised her, given her first-hand knowledge of the unit and its work.
“Those were things that were not consistent with my knowledge of the way the organization works,” Esrig said.
Esrig said she doesn’t believe that a few employees in the Cincinnati office made the decisions to use the inappropriate selection criteria – as the IRS has claimed to Congress and as the Treasury Inspector General reported in its audit.
According to a congressional source, the IRS reported in a briefing to Congress that two “rogue” employees were responsible for the use of the criteria.
But Esrig said that doesn’t make sense based on her experience.
“The idea of two rogue employees,” Esrig said, “is inconsistent with the kinds of checks and balances that are inherent in the way the organization is set up.”
Nor does she believe the IRS assertion in its response to the Inspector General’s audit that the use of such inappropriate selection criteria were “mistakes” and that “front-line career employees … made the decisions.”
“Front-line employees (at the Cincinnati office) do not make key decisions about policy and how work is processed,” Esrig told us. “Work is reviewed by the managers. The employees don't operate autonomously where there is no review. The managers review.
“I think that even if an employee were to veer off in a separate direction briefly, I would be very surprised if anyone could sustain that before management became involved.”
But Esrig agreed with a second claim the IRS has been making: that the employees using the inappropriate criteria “acted out of a desire for efficiency and not out of any political or partisan viewpoint.”
She said that she never saw any political or partisan behavior in her time in that office and that she does not believe that there was any political motivation behind the use of the inappropriate selection criteria.
"I don't believe that it was in any way political," she said.
Likewise, she said, she never saw any hint of partisanship during her nearly four decades with the IRS.
The Inspector General’s audit stated that, when it asked various IRS personnel, from Acting Commissioner Steven Miller to employees in the Exempt Organizations Determinations Unit, whether there had been any outside influence in the selection of the criteria, “All of these officials stated that the criteria were not influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS.”
Esrig told NBC News that she agrees that the IRS was not acting on any outside direction, presidential or otherwise.
“The way the IRS operates,” Esrig said, “over my years of experience in various roles, including working in Washington, D.C, I have never seen anything come down where the administration was directing the IRS to handle something in one way versus another way.”
Esrig told NBC News she thought Miller’s testimony to a congressional committee last week that employees were using keywords as a shortcut to select cases more efficiently -- and not for political reasons -- was entirely plausible.
“I absolutely believe that cases could be grouped for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with partisan concerns,” she said. “I don't think that there is anything political about the grouping of cases.”
The IRS Exempt Organizations Determinations Unit is located on the fourth floor of the Federal Building at 550 Main St. in downtown Cincinnati. It is the location which receives, reviews and processes all applications for tax-exempt status, and from which letters of acceptance or denial originate.
The IRS has reported to Congress that approximately 140 employees – most of them in Cincinnati -- have been doingthe work on political groups cases,out of the IRS overall staff of 90,000.
In recent years, those employees handled an increase in the number of political advocacy organizations engaging in both social welfare and political activities applying for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code.
NBC News has attempted to contact other IRS employees -- present and former, in Cincinnati and elsewhere -- who were involved with the tax-exempt determinations during the period when the targeting occurred, but those employees either have declined to comment or have not responded to requests.
Esrig said she has not talked to any of her former colleagues about the controversy, and is speaking only based on her experience in that office.
“I believe that the employees were trying to do the best job they could with the guidance they were given,” she said.
Lisa Myers is NBC News' senior investigative correspondent; Rich Gardella is an investigative producer for NBC News.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced a criminal investigation into the IRS' handling of applications for tax-exempt status by conservative groups. NBC's Lisa Myers reports.
By M. Alex Johnson, staff writer, NBC News
Poor management allowed low-level IRS employees to single out Tea Party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra review, and the agency continues to drag its heels on fixing things, according to an inspector general's report obtained Tuesday by NBC News.
The IRS said in its formal response that it had satisfactorily answered all of the complaints in the audit by the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration. But Acting Deputy Inspector General Michael McKenney made it clear in a cover letter accompanying the document that "we do not consider the concerns in this report to be resolved," noting that the IRS objected to two of his office's nine recommendations calling for clearer regulations, stricter processes and better documentation of what the IRS is doing and why.
President Barack Obama said in a statement Tuesday evening that the report's findings were "intolerable and inexcusable." He said he had ordered Treasury Secretary Jack Lew "to make sure that each of the Inspector General's recommendations are implemented quickly."
The report found that mismanagement led the IRS to ask some groups for unnecessary information — in some cases, it asked groups to list the names and address of future donors — and delayed processing of some groups' requests, some for more than three years.
The average delay was 13 months, it said.
Two IRS offices — the Washington headquarters of its Exempt Organizations unit, which is responsible for processing applications for tax-exempt status, and an office in Cincinnati called the Determinations Unit — come in for the brunt of the blame in the 48-page report, parts of which are redacted.
The audit found that in June 2011, the Cincinnati office distributed an expanded "Be On the Look Out" list of criteria for identifying potential political cases. The so-called BOLO list identified four reasons for officers to give an application special attention:
"Tea Party," "Patriots" or "9/12 Project" is referenced in the case file
Issues include government spending, government debt or taxes
Education of the public by advocacy/lobbying to "make America a better place to live"
Statements in the case file criticize how the country is being run
"The criteria developed by the Determinations Unit gives the appearance that the IRS is not impartial in conducting its mission," the audit concluded. "The criteria focused narrowly on the names and policy positions of organizations instead of tax-exempt laws and Treasury Regulations."
In its response, the IRS acknowledged "the mistakes outlined in the report," saying they were caused by "the lack of a set process for working the increase in advocacy cases and insufficient sensitivity to the implications of some of the decisions made."
It also claimed that some of the political groups were at fault because their applications were "vague as to the activities the applicants planned to conduct."
Groups seeking 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status can advocate for particular general political positions, but their primary purpose must be "social welfare," and they are barred from intervening in political campaigns.
"A number of applications indicated that the organization did not plan to conduct political campaign activity," the IRS said. But elsewhere in their applications, they "described activities that in fact appeared to be such activities," it said.
Many of the groups "did not understand what activities would constitute political campaign intervention," it said, even as it noted in the same document that "there are no bright-line tests" for what constitutes such activity.
"As the report discusses, these issues have been resolved," the IRS declared.
"Meet the Press" moderator David Gregory discusses the IRS's admission that it singled out conservative groups, saying there's frustration more wasn't done to deal with the issue.
But the audit disagreed, saying: "Although the IRS has taken some action, it will need to do more so that the public has reasonable assurance that applications are processed without unreasonable delay in a fair and impartial manner in the future."
In a statement late Tuesday, the IRS contended that it didn't act out of any political bias, saying the cases singled out for review in the Cincinnati office since 2010 "included organizations of all political views."
The audit didn't specifically address allegations that Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller misled Congress because he knew about the inappropriate procedures but kept quiet for months before they were made public.
In a speech on the Senate floor, John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican whip, thundered that Miller "should resign today" if it is established that he "willfully misled Congress when inquiries were made earlier about this sort of scandalous political activity."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that regardless of whether it acted out of political bias, the IRS had made a mess of things.
"This was either one of the greatest cases of incompetence that I've ever seen or it was the IRS willfully not telling Congress the truth," he said.
In its statement, the IRS said it never intended to hide the issue. Instead, it said, it waited to say anything until it could see the audit "and we reviewed their findings."
In what was described as a "tough meeting" Tuesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., told Miller that "he is in for some serious questioning" from the committee, sources in the meeting told NBC News' Kelly O'Donnell.
The Finance Committee is expected to convene a hearing into the controversy, although one hasn't yet been scheduled. Baucus told Miller on Tuesday that the committee would accept nothing less than his "complete cooperation and transparency," one of the sources said.
Lisa Myers, Kelly O'Donnell and Richard Gardella of NBC News contributed to this report. Follow M. Alex Johnson on Twitter and Facebook.
By Dave Levinthal, The Center for Public Integrity
Amid withering accusations the Internal Revenue Service targeted tea party and other conservative groups with enhanced scrutiny, the agency faces another problem: It’s drowning in paperwork.
The IRS’ Exempt Organizations Division, which finds itself at the scandal’s epicenter, processed significantly more tax exemption applications by so-called 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations — 2,774 during fiscal year 2012 — since at least the late 1990s, according to an analysis of IRS records by the Center for Public Integrity.
Compare that to 1,777 applications in 2011 and 1,741 in 2010, federal records show. Not since 2002, when officials processed 2,402 applications, have so many been received.
Meanwhile, Exempt Organizations Division staffing slid from 910 employees during fiscal year 2009 to 876 during fiscal year 2012, agency personnel documents indicate.
In 2010, IRS officials projected exempt division staffing at 942 employees. But IRS officials cut the number to 900 after the agency began slashing its budget in response to fiscal woes affecting most corners of the federal government.
The agency said this weekend that a heavy workload prompted bureaucrats to “centralize” the “influx of advocacy applications” and, in the name of efficiency, scrutinize groups that contained more common phrases such as “tea party” in them.
“That was wrong, that was absolutely incorrect, insensitive and inappropriate — that’s not how we go about selecting cases for further review,” Lois Lerner, IRS exempt organizations director, said Friday. “We don’t select for review because they have a particular name.”
Lerner, who denied the targeting was politically motivated, added that about 75 groups with words such as “tea party” or “patriot” received extra scrutiny but none had its tax-exempt status revoked.
The IRS could not be reached for comment Monday.
For Washington, D.C.,-based attorney Dan Backer, who represents two tea party-affiliated organizations, blaming such actions on staffing cuts and increased workload is a “lame excuse” that the IRS should stop using.
“They could have hired new employees, they could have reallocated employees, they could have done a lot of things, the not doing of which doesn't suddenly make it OK for them to engage in viewpoint discrimination,” said Backer, who said he is considering suing the IRS. “At worst, their staffing woes maybe justifies a growing backlog, not discriminating against those whose viewpoints they disagree with.”
IRS records show that applications of the most common nonprofit organizations — 501(c)(3) educational nonprofits, private foundations, charities and the like — have dropped this decade after reaching a high of more than 85,000 in fiscal 2007. Generally, this type of nonprofit entity must remain apolitical.
As for 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations, such as the tea party groups in question, they may engage in politics so long as it isn’t their primary purpose.
During the 2012 election cycle, however, numerous 501(c)(4) organizations — most of them conservative, a few left-leaning and all endowed with new spending powers thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — together spent tens of millions of dollars overtly advocating for or against political candidates.
And unlike super PACs, which may also raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, they’re not required to reveal their donors.
Democrats primarily cried foul, accusing groups such as the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS and Koch brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity of violating their tax-exempt status.
But the IRS has taken no definitive action against these or other nonprofit groups, and several campaign finance reform advocates have opined that this latest incident will further stymie their effort to convince the IRS to crack down on nonprofit groups they consider overridingly political.
As for tea party-named nonprofit groups, for all the attention now on them, they generally played bit roles during the 2012 election.
Of the more than 40 organizations that identified themselves as tea party-related in IRS documents, just one — the National Tea Party Group of California — reported assets of more than $100,000 in its most recent publicly available financial filing.
For now, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have called on the Obama administration to investigate the matter, and Obama himself described the IRS’ conduct as “outrageous.”
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration is expected to release a full report on the matter later this week, and officials in the House and Senate are promising hearings.
Karen Gries, an appointee to the IRS Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities, says she expects her committee will discuss the matter when it meets later this year.
In the meantime, Gries praised the overall performance of Lerner, the exempt organizations director, while expressing concern about her department’s ability to do its job.
“They are asked to do more with less resources,” said Gries, a principal at with accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen LLP. “The EO group operates very lean.”
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, non-partisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. For more of its stories on this to go publicintegrity.org.
The Rev. Mark Harris endorsed a Republican candidate for the state Supreme Court during his sermon Oct. 7 at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C.
By M. Alex Johnson, NBC News
With the presidential election a dead heat and many other races too close to call, hundreds of religious leaders nationwide are urging their congregations to vote for a specific candidate. They break the law when they do so — that's the point — but it's unclear whether there's any real penalty for pastors who make such endorsements from the pulpit.
About 1,600 pastors across the country violated a 58-year-old ban on political endorsements by churches in October by explicitly backing political candidates in their Sunday sermons, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom of Scottsdale, Ariz., a conservative Christian legal organization behind a campaign called Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
The 1954 law they are challenging prohibits charitable groups, including most churches, from making candidate endorsements, but doesn't bar ministers, priests, rabbis and imams from speaking out on other ballot issues, like voter initiatives, or organizing get-out-the-vote drives and education efforts around elections themselves.
The alliance is seeking to force a court showdown over the constitutionality of the law, violation of which can cost churches their tax-exempt status. Since Oct. 7, the original Pulpit Freedom Day, many pastors who participated in the protest have posted their remarks online or sent them to the Internal Revenue Service, essentially daring the agency charged with enforcing the prohibition to put up or shut up.
So far, the IRS has done the latter.
The Alliance Defending Freedom asserts that it's working to further the rights of all religious groups, but it's an explicitly Christian organization, with a heavy representation of evangelical members and leaders. One clue to its philosophy is that it made it Pulpit Freedom "Sunday" — choosing the Christian Sabbath, instead of more broadly embracing the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) and the Muslim day of worship (Friday).
So it's no surprise that an unscientific survey of the posted endorsements indicates that they skewed overwhelmingly in favor of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, as in these representative samples:
In a guest sermon at Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, Calif., Wayne Gruden, a professor and theologian at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, recommended that "all citizens" vote for Romney "and Republicans in general" (the endorsement begins at 59:58):
Wayne Gruden, a professor and theologian at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, endorses Mitt Romney.
Pastor Ken Redmond of Abundant Life Worship Center in Midland, Texas, told his congregation they shouldn't vote for President Barack Obama, saying, "Here is your choice: a Mormon or a Muslim" (the remarks begin at 33:17):
As of Friday, none of the hundreds of pastors who took part in the protest reported hearing back from the government. In fact, the Alliance Defending Freedom says, only one of the churches that have taken part in Pulpit Freedom Sundays over the last five years has been the target of IRS action, and that case was dropped shortly after the IRS lost a separate legal ruling almost four years ago.
The Internal Revenue Code specifies that all section 501(c)(3) organizations are "absolutely prohibited" from taking part in, contributing to or making any statement "in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office."
But enforcement appears to have halted completely in early 2009 after Living Word Christian Center of Brooklyn Park, Minn., successfully appealed an audit that the IRS launched after its pastor endorsed Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann for re-election. The judge ruled (.pdf) that the IRS was technically violating its own regulations in deciding whether to audit churches for banned political activities — because the official making that decision wasn't high enough on the Treasury Department's organization chart.
The IRS, however, isn't acknowledging that it has stopped enforcing the ban on candidate endorsements by officials of 501(c)3 charitable organizations.
Dean Patterson, a spokesman for the IRS, said the official "misspoke," adding: "The IRS continues to run a balanced program that follows up on potential non-compliance, while ensuring the appropriate oversight and review to determine that compliance activities are necessary and appropriate."
Noting that it's barred by law from discussing individual tax cases, the IRS declined NBC News' request for documentation showing that it has taken any action against politicking from the pulpit since then.
But Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said it's clear that the agency is sidestepping the issue.
"We surmise the IRS has shut down all its church audits," Stanley said. As time goes on, he added, "It may become clear that the IRS has taken the position that it will not censor a pastor."
(As it happens, there is a legal way for churches to endorse candidates and still not pay taxes, by registering with the IRS under a different section of the tax code, 501(c)4. But nearly all religious institutions reject that choice because individuals who give money to 501(c)4 groups aren't allowed to claim tax deductions for their donations. Donations to 501(c)3 groups are deductible.)
A matter of politics, not constitutionality While the issue is often cast in terms of separation of church and state, the prohibition on candidate endorsements is a political one, not a constitutional one. If anything, "from a constitutional perspective ... American churches have had every right to endorse or oppose political candidates" since 1819, James Davidson, a prominent religion scholar, wrote in a landmark 1998 paper (.pdf) in the Review of Religious Research.
That was when the Supreme Court ruled — in a case involving banks, not churches — that the federal government had the power to limit taxation of specific enterprises in furtherance of the public good, quoting Daniel Webster's argument that "the power to tax is the power to destroy." Subsequent law extended that philosophy to establish that charitable groups could seek exemption from taxation.
The prohibition on candidate endorsements comes from a different source. It dates only to 1954, and like the 1819 decision, it applies to all 501(c)3 charitable groups, not just churches. Democratic Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas inserted it into the tax code as he was fighting off a re-election challenge backed by tax-exempt political foundations that historians have linked with the anti-Communist witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The measure passed with little debate. Its effect was to muzzle religious leaders, even though "there is no evidence that a religious element played a significant part in Johnson's decision," Patrick L. O'Daniel, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas Law School, wrote in a 2001 reconstruction of the bill's passage in the Boston College Law Review.
Whether Johnson intended it that way or not, religious leaders have argued that the provision is an unacceptable stifling of their constitutional rights.
"This is about restoring biblical authority and a constitutional right for pastors to speak freely from the pulpit without any fear of the government on cultural and societal issues from a biblical perspective. And that includes commenting on the positions of the candidates," the Rev. Dann E. Travis, pastor of Crossroads of Life Church in Binghampton, N.Y., said to cheers from the congregation last week.
The Rev. Rob Rotola, who took part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday at Word of Life Ministries in Wichita, Kan., told NBC station KSN: "The concept of separation of church and state meant that the state was to keep out of the affairs of the church, not that the church was supposed to be silent about things about the state."
Pulpit Freedom SundayMinistries taking part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, Oct. 7
- Baptist/Southern Baptist 409
- Assemblies of God 36
- Nazarene 34
- Church of God 32
- Presbyterian 17
- Lutheran 12
- Church of Christ 11
- Catholic 10
- Allliance Church 7
- Anglican 4
- Messianic Jewish 3
- Nondenominational/ unaffiliated/other 993
Sources: Alliance Defending Freedom, NBC News research
But other religious figures see a political angle — specifically, a conservative and evangelical angle — behind the challenge to the law.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, a minister in President Barack Obama's United Church of Christ and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the Alliance Defending Freedom was hiding behind "a fiction that there's a war against Christianity." The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he said, managed to preach about politics almost every day of his adult life without ever endorsing a political candidate.
"It's time to get serious about this, because we could end up with a corruption not only of the political process but of the integrity of the genuine prophetic message of churches," Lynn said in a recent interview on State of Belief Radio.
The Rev. Fester Coffee-Prose, youth minister at First Christian Church in Tyler, Texas, also objected, saying politics should be left to politicians, not pastors.
"While we might take stands on certain issues, when it comes to the candidates, the church should be a place where people of diverse backgrounds and diverse beliefs gather," he told NBC station KETK. "I don't necessarily believe that we should be endorsing any one candidate from the pulpit."
Also of concern to some religious leaders is the alliance leadership's connections to conservative organizations and causes: Its president, Alan Sears, was director of Attorney General Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography during the Reagan administration, and other board members represent the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, the anti-abortion activist group Susan B. Anthony List and the conservative evangelical ministry Focus on the Family.
What pastors say
In a survey of 1,000 Protestant ministers, LifeWay Research, the polling arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that:
- 87 percent believe pastors shouldn't endorse candidates from the pulpit
- 44 percent have endorsed candidates, but only outside their church roles
- 78 percent disagreed that this election has been "too religious"
Source: LifeWay Research, May 2012. Margin of error: plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Pulpit Freedom Sunday itself was similarly overwhelmingly Christian, with an emphasis on evangelicalism. Working from a list of ministries that signed up in advance, NBC News tabulated that 98 percent were evangelical or otherwise Protestant ministries.
Just 10 Catholic priests took part, defying the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' directive that church leaders "are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote."
Only four Anglican ministers signed up. No imams or traditional rabbis were listed — the three synagogues on the roster are Messianic Jewish congregations, which proclaim the divinity of Jesus.
In a statement, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it had reminded imams and khateebs (those who give the sermon during Friday prayers) that tax-exempt mosques "cannot explicitly or implicitly endorse candidates." Likewise, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs pointed to its standing directive that "organizations may not rate, endorse or oppose candidates for public office."
The alliance, nonetheless, says its campaign is about a larger question.
"Eventually, we'll have a test case about the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment," Stanley said. "The IRS has really left pastors and churches no option if they believe they have the right to speak freely from their pulpit."