Democrats Call On IRS To Review Family Research Council’s ‘Church’ Status

By Jack Jenkins
tony perkins irs status frc
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, speaks during a press conference in Washington, D.C. (RNS photo by Jerome Socolovsky)

House Democrats are asking the IRS to review the tax-exempt status of a prominent conservative advocacy group recently reclassified as a church, arguing the organization may be exploiting the designation to avoid scrutiny.

Forty Democratic lawmakers, led by U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene of Washington state and Jared Huffman of California, outlined their concerns in a letter sent to the head of the IRS and the secretary of the Treasury on Monday, singling out the Family Research Council (FRC). According to a recent report from ProPublica, the FRC successfully applied to be reclassified as a “group of churches” in 2020.

Lawmakers say that while the FRC often appeals to faith and advocates for a “biblical worldview,” the status change “strains credulity” because the group operates primarily as “a political advocacy organization.”

“They do not hold religious services, do not have a congregation or affiliated congregations, and do not possess many of the other attributes of churches listed by the IRS,” the letter reads. “FRC is one example of an alarming pattern in the last decade — right-wing advocacy groups self-identifying as ‘churches’ and applying for and receiving church status.”

According to ProPublica, the FRC, which is led by former state lawmaker and ordained minister Tony Perkins, claimed in its IRS application that it holds chapel services in its main building in Washington, although a staffer suggested otherwise when contacted by ProPublica. The FRC also claimed it has a congregation made up of its board of directors, employees, supporters and partner churches — although it did not list the names of those churches.

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The FRC is primarily known for its long-standing advocacy on conservative issues. Perkins is credited with being a driving force behind former President Donald Trump’s efforts to ban transgender people from the U.S. military. Perkins was also part of a “Pro-Life Voices for Trump” effort launched as part of the former president’s unsuccessful reelection campaign.

In their letter, lawmakers note the benefits of being classified as a church, a legal term that encompasses an array of tax-exempt religious houses of worship. Churches do not have to file 990 forms, which detail the salaries of major staffers and allow for public scrutiny. What’s more, the IRS rarely investigates churches, in part because doing so requires signoff from a “high-level Treasury official,” the letter pointed out.

“We understand the importance of religious institutions to their congregants and believe that religious freedom is a cherished American value and constitutional right,” the letter reads. “We also believe that our tax code must be applied fairly and judiciously. Tax-exempt organizations should not be exploiting tax laws applicable to churches to avoid public accountability and the IRS’s examination of their activities.”

Indeed, an array of primarily conservative evangelical Christian advocacy groups have been reclassified as churches in recent years. As reported in The Roys Report, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was reclassified as a church sometime around 2015 — roughly the same time controversy began to swirl regarding the reported $880,000 annual salary paid to the group’s head, Franklin Graham. Other organizations that have made the change include Gideons International, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and the Willow Creek Association.

In their widely reprinted article on FRC’s tax status, ProPublica briefly quoted Warren Cole Smith, president of Christian watchdog group MinistryWatch, who stated his general misgivings about nonprofit groups seeking to be classified as churches with the IRS. 

About two weeks later, MinistryWatch published a statement received from FRC. “Our plan at present is to continue filing the 990s,” stated Perkins in part. “Pursuing the classification as an association of churches is not about avoiding transparency; this is about being able to operate according to our biblical faith as a Christian organization in a city that has grown increasingly hostile to biblical morality.”

However, in their letter, lawmakers view the issues in a different light. “Given that the FRC is primarily an advocacy organization and not a church, we urge the IRS to swiftly review the tax-exempt status, and whether there are other political advocacy organizations that have obtained church status, but do not satisfy the IRS requirements for churches, integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches,” they state. 

The signers called on the IRS to review existing guidance and ensure it cannot be abused, and to improve its review process for organizations seeking church status “to ensure that organizations that are not churches cannot abuse the tax code.”

Among the letter’s signatories are U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Adam Schiff of California, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.

Julie Roys contributed to this report.

Jack Jenkins is an award-winning journalist and national reporter for the Religion News Service.

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29 thoughts on “Democrats Call On IRS To Review Family Research Council’s ‘Church’ Status”

  1. “Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was reclassified as a church sometime around 2015 — roughly the same time controversy began to swirl regarding the reported $880,000 annual salary paid to the group’s head, Franklin Graham”

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that Franklin Graham did not draw a $880,000 salary from BGEA but from a combination of Samaritan’s Purse & BGEA?

    Not trying in any way to justify that salary (I consider it outrageous) not matter what its source, just suggesting that the above statement may need some clarification (unless I am wrong, in which case I withdraw my post in advance ;) )

    1. “In 2009 Franklin Graham got annual compensation totaling $1.2 million as President of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse. Following that story, Graham told his staff he wanted to give up his pay as head of the BGEA. He has since began accepting compensation from that group once again.”

      Source:
      How Much Is Too Much To Pay A Pastor?
      Franklin Graham’s salary raises eyebrows among Christian nonprofits.
      Christine Wicker
      — Religion News Service
      Aug 19, 2015

  2. “Pursuing the classification as an association of churches is not about avoiding transparency;”

    Yes, Tony Perkins, that is exactly what it’s about. I favor a crackdown on all these Christian corporations dishonestly claiming to be churches to avoid publishing their embarrassingly bloated salaries.

    I expect they have already crafted a fundraising letter claiming they are being persecuted.

    1. Agree Todd:

      1 Cor. 5
      11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. — NET

      Both of these publications have comments on churches or organizations that are churches, sort of. (!) The third article that should be mentioned is the ProPublica article mentioned in the Roys Report q.v.,

      https://www.propublica.org/article/family-research-council-irs-church-status?mc_cid=3e15043a7f&mc_eid=49ca90ea86

      “Most charities are subject to some level of transparency, but not churches.  That leaves it up to the members to demand transparency.  If you meet resistance from the leadership, maybe you might consider that rather than a sheep who is being fed, you are one that is being shorn.”—Peter J. Reilly

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/peterjreilly/2014/12/23/court-rules-churches-can-continue-to-conceal-financial-information/?sh=5da8594a96e6

      “Heal Their Land”: Evangelical Political Theology From the Great Awakening to the Moral Majority—Joseph D. Harder Ph.D.

      https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/historydiss/67/

      Stories like these make me glad that I’m a registered independent, it’s the Democrats that are behaving like Christians!

      1. Thanks, Robert. You are correct and I was wrong. FRC does still file For 990 which is commendable.

        The latest report published is from 2020 and Perkins received $227,427 reportable compensation from the organization, $70,900 compensation from related organizations, and $16,246 estimated amount of other compensation from the organization and related organizations. This totals $314,573. That’s a healthy salary, but probably about average for his position.

        I also checked on Franklin Graham’s salary. Samaritan’s Purse still files a Form 990. The Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA) last filed Form 990 for the year 2014. In 2020 Franklin Graham received $670,731 reportable compensation from the Samaritan’s Purse and $69,973 estimated amount of other compensation from the organization and related organizations. This totals $740,714.

        Samaritan’s purse also claimed $27,629,512 for travel and $252,339,504 in investments in publicly traded securities.

  3. Yes, please keep those conservative Christians out of politics. They should definitely keep their beliefs to themselves. How dare a group of Christians with different opinions than ours refer to themselves as a “church”.

    1. I don’t think the concern is the “different beliefs” as much as the dishonestly claiming to be a church (they’re not, but the IRS definitions, or by definition of “church”) so they can avoid oversight and exploit tax loopholes. It’s the lying and cheating that are problematic.

  4. Cynthia Norbeck

    “Among the letter’s signatories are U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Adam Schiff of California, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.”

    Such a classy group of accusers! If these gems signed the letter, you can know it’s based on anti-Christian hatred.

      1. Cynthia Norbeck

        “According to a recent report from ProPublica, the FRC successfully applied to be reclassified as a “group of churches” in 2020.”

        Did you read this, Mark? The application process requires significant information before approval is granted.

        Do you think the Democrats who signed the letter might have ulterior motives? Based on their actions to date, I’d say it’s highly likely.

        1. Mark Gunderson

          I don’t care about their motives, just like I don’t care if John MacArthur’s defenders are right and Julie has a vendetta against him.

          I care about the truth. We have a word for a “group of churches” and that word is “denomination.”

          The FRC describes itself as

          “Founded in 1983, Family Research Council is a nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to articulating and advancing a family-centered philosophy of public life. In addition to providing policy research and analysis for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government, FRC seeks to inform the news media, the academic community, business leaders, and the general public about family issues that affect the nation from a biblical worldview.”

          That’s not a church and that’s not a denomination. You better be careful what you ask for. If you support this you’re unlikely to like all of the other ‘churches’ that follow suit from all across the political landscape.

          1. Cynthia Norbeck

            “For us, it’s about being able, in Washington, D.C., to be an organization that has a statement of faith, to be able to hire people and to pursue our mission in accordance with our faith and not be imposed upon by regulations from the local government,” he told Fox News Digital.

            “This has been a process over the years,” Perkins said. “We’ve had to change our status just to avoid the mandates from government, whether it’s to provide for abortion in our health care policies or it’s to hire people who actually have views contrary to our statement of faith.” Perkins

            In effect, the FRC is protecting itself from encroachment by the federal government.

            Apparently, this protection is provided in the U. S. Constitution.

    1. Cynthia,
      Why do you think Rep Raskin, Rep Schiff harbor anti-Christian hatred??

      What does “slander” mean to you??

      Do you think this because you were indoctrinated to think this by a self-serving religious organization??

      What is your evidence for the hate-mongering that you are expressing here??

      Thanks,

      Greg Logan

    2. Cynthia, Don’t you believe these organizations should be held accountable?? How can they be called nonprofits?? Franklin Graham is allready a multimillionaire. How can someone support such abuse!!

  5. I am truly grateful for any individual who names the name of Jesus has the integrity to call out phony religious grifters like Tony Perkins/Graham, Jeffress, the NAR and all the other phone grifters – who use the name of Jesus to line their pockets from the gullible, the ignorant and, obviously, the Magat cult

    Jesus made a whip and beat these sorts of frauds out of the temple – I look forward to any day that He do it again!!!!

  6. It is deceitful for any political advocacy group — and any parachurch organization — to call itself a church. Deceiftulness, according to Scripture, is sin. This is another example of Christian organizations behaving in (seemingly) cynical, self-serving, hypocritical ways.

    1. Cynthia Norbeck

      “This is nothing new for Democrats,” FRC Co-Founder and President Tony Perkins told Fox News Digital in an interview. “They want to silence all religious organizations. They really ought to get their facts straight because the facts that are advanced in this letter are inaccurate.”

      “We’re not a church,” he continued. “We’re what is recognized as an ‘association of churches’ because we work with churches. We’ve got about somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 active churches that we work with; we have a number of ordained members of our staff. So, we work with churches.”

      See? Tony Perkins agrees with you! An “Association of Churches” is not a church.

      1. I have not seen any evidence that the democrats are trying to silence all religious organization. I have seen evidence that they’re trying to expose and correct fraud, which is what this is.

  7. Christopher Ledford

    Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. Christian universities, conventions parachute organizations, christian political pacs are not the church. The universal church made up of local assemblies of blood bought believers meeting together will PREVAIL.
    It may be in a hut in Africa or a pretty facility in America or underground in secret in China. It is not the FRC in DC either. Paul preached Christ in Rome from a prison cell not from a political podium whining about his rights.
    Persecution and judgment is on its way to America 2 blessings will follow : The church will be purified. Most people in it for the money will disappear. Second the church will become spiritually stronger because it will COST something to be a true disciple. Rather exciting if you think about it.

    1. Remove the 501c3 and tax write-offs and see how long it takes to reveal who’s in it for the money. Christian heads & lay people alike. [This] financial marriage between “the church” and the government is quite exploitive to say the least.

  8. Personally I feel churches should be investigated and charities. All so called nonprofits! They should have to be transparent on how the money they solicit is being used and the salaries shouldn’t be excessive!!!

  9. Robert Simpson

    More information from Ministry Watch and Warren Cole Smith:
    “ Tony Perkins, the president of the FRC, reached out to me to clarify that while they did have the FRC re-classified as an association of churches, they will continue to file their Form 990s with the IRS. Perkins said – and I want to read exactly what he wrote because I think it’s important for his voice to be heard:

    “We did file our Form 990 under our status as an association of churches. We do not have nor did we seek the status of a church. There is a difference. Our plan at present is to continue filing the 990s. Pursuing the classification as an association of churches is not about avoiding transparency; this is about being able to operate according to our biblical faith as a Christian organization in a city that has grown increasingly hostile to biblical morality.””
    Full article and more details about the FRC issue at this link. FRC is one of the topics in a longer post.
    https://ministrywatch.com/editors-notebook-ted-haggard-amy-grant-and-the-family-research-council-and-form-990s/

    1. Tim, thanks for the chuckle. But honestly, it’s very sad that it’s come to this—having to call a spade a spade.

  10. Meredith Nienhuis

    May I suggest that the church apostate is not a church – in particular liberal/progressive led denominations such as the UCC, TEC, ELCA, Mennonites, RCA, ….

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