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    IRS must take action against Pastor Jack Hibbs’ electioneering from the pulpit
    • March 14, 2024

    The IRS needs to enforce the law and revoke the tax-exempt status of Pastor Jack Hibbs’ Calvary Chapel Chino Hills church.

    As an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I cannot endorse or oppose any candidate for public office. I can tell people that they should vote, but I can’t tell them who to vote for or against. That’s because FFRF is a 501(c)(3) and the Internal Revenue Code states that to retain its 501(c)(3) status an organization cannot “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

    While we take the privileges of our 501(c)(3) status very seriously and follow the law, Pastor Jack Hibbs does not. And he’s not alone. Church leaders across the country regularly violate the law by endorsing political candidates. They reap all the benefits of tax exemptions and the ability to provide tax deductions to their donors, while openly mocking and defying the IRS.

    Hibbs exemplifies this carefree attitude toward the law and the responsibilities that churches have as tax-exempt organizations. Last month, Hibbs used his Sunday service to endorse a political candidate, telling his congregation to “vote for Steve Garvey” in the upcoming California primary:

    I want to publicly right now, today, encourage all of you to vote for Steve Garvey. You gotta vote for Steve Garvey. It’s against the law for me to, I just remembered it’s against the law for me to say that in the pulpit so …

    He then stepped away from the pulpit before continuing:

    As a public citizen, Steve Garvey is not only one of the greatest baseball players of all time, but we want Steve Garvey to represent us in the senate and so Steve Garvey is your only, is the only guy on the ballot. Um, so there, that was legal. I just had to move from here to there. 

    While Hibbs is free to endorse candidates in his capacity as a private citizen not representing his church, he knows that is not what he was doing. He not only admitted to violating the law, but he subsequently removed that part of the sermon before posting it online. That’s why I wrote the IRS last month on behalf of FFRF urging it to revoke the tax-exempt status of Hibbs’ church.

    Unfortunately, he’s got good reason to believe that he will not face any consequences. After all, he got away with it in 2022 after openly endorsing Larry Elder, a candidate hoping to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom in a failed recall election attempt. FFRF reported that violation to the IRS, as it does dozens of others every year, but the IRS continues to allow churches to flout the law. In 2022, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica detailed the failure of the IRS to enforce the law against churches, highlighting the alarming fact that only two churches have been punished for violating the law in the past 70 years.

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    This dereliction of duty on the part of the IRS is unacceptable. American taxpayers essentially subsidize 501(c)(3) groups with the understanding that they will engage in charitable or educational endeavors, not political campaigning. And while any 501(c)(3) organization violating the law is concerning, there’s added danger with regard to churches because they don’t have to file financial disclosures with the IRS. When you pair tax-deductible donations with no financial oversight, churches essentially turn into super PACs potentially allowing individuals to make unlimited tax-deductible contributions to political campaigns via church tithes and donations.

    This is something that Americans don’t want. Four out of five Americans oppose politicking from the pulpit, according to a 2016 survey by LifeWay Research. Fully 79 percent oppose pastors endorsing candidates during a church service. More than eight in 10 believe it’s inappropriate for churches to use their resources for political campaigns, and many church leaders themselves don’t want to deal with the burden of endorsing candidates and alienating members of their congregations.

    The IRS must enforce its laws and the desires of the American taxpayers and take action against Jack Hibbs and any other church leaders who abuse their tax-exempt status.

    Chris Line is a staff attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization with approximately 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 5,100 members and two chapters in California.

    ​ Orange County Register