LOS ANGELES - The IRS is increasingly being asked to referee disputes over whether churches are improperly engaging in partisan politicking from the pulpit. And some fear the trend could endanger the taxman's neutrality.
Months before November's midterm elections, the Internal Revenue Service warned that it would be scrutinizing churches to make sure they do not violate their tax-exempt status. Groups both liberal and conservative have responded by lodging numerous complaints against churches with the IRS.
"Any citizen can form a group and spy on all these churches and report the results," said Ed McCaffery, dean of the University of Southern California School of Law and a tax law expert. "This entanglement of church and state vis-a-vis the tax laws is deeply out of control."
Churches can be important political forums during election season. Under federal tax law, churches can discuss politics, but if they endorse candidates or parties, they can be stripped of their tax-exempt status.
The IRS saw a spike in complaints of partisan politicking in 2004, the last national elections.
More recently, a group of pastors in Ohio filed a complaint with the IRS against two megachurch pastors they accused of actively supporting Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican running for governor.
And the IRS was in the spotlight last week when the liberal All Saints Church, an Episcopal congregation in Pasadena, refused to cooperate with an investigation into an anti-war sermon a guest pastor delivered two days before the 2004 presidential election.
William Murray, who started the Web site http://www.ratoutachurch.org in 2004, predicts the number of IRS complaints about politics in the pulpit will increase in two years as Republicans and Democrats hone their tactics.
Murray said he collected more than 30 complaints against liberal, mostly black, churches on his Web site during the last presidential contest. He referred several cases to the IRS, he said, and has received two more during this year's midterm contests.
"I actually believe that what I'm doing with this is wrong, but I'm doing it in a defensive nature," said Murray, executive director of the Religious Freedom Action Coalition. "Somebody has to defend the conservative churches and the only way to protect them is to attack the liberal churches."
Some of those familiar with the IRS say recent changes in how the agency handles such cases could make it more vulnerable to political manipulation.
Until 2000, the decision to investigate churches and charities was made by one of a few high-ranking regional commissioners. Now that decision is made by a lower-level administrator, who may be less politically attuned, said Marcus Owens, All Saints' attorney and a former IRS administrator.
"What was not intended to be a biased audit program is at risk of becoming one," Owens said.
Steve Miller, commissioner of the IRS' tax exempt and government entities division, dismissed such concerns, saying each complaint is reviewed by a three-person panel before being forwarded to the administrator. The decision to investigate a church must also be approved by an attorney, he said.
In 2004, the IRS launched investigations of 110 organizations; of the 90 it completed, it found violations in about 70 percent of the cases. In 2005, the agency began audits of 70 churches and charities, which are still pending. It has 40 cases pending this year, a time when IRS officials have promised to redouble their scrutiny.
The agency relies on material gathered by outsiders. "I don't think anyone would want to see our guys sitting in the back pew," Miller said.
According to the IRS, the only church ever to be stripped of its tax-exempt status for partisan political activity was a church near Binghamton, N.Y., that was penalized in 1995 after running newspaper ads against Bill Clinton in 1992.
In fact, Miller said half of all complaints are immediately thrown out as frivolous.
Despite concerns about the politicization of the IRS complaint system, many say the agency is still a crucial check that prevents religious organizations from becoming arms of a political party.
"This is the most overtly religious presidency in modern history and these churches feel they can get something from the government and give the government their endorsement," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "If people are violating the law, it's the responsibility of groups to say this is not right and report it."