Far-right religious group Focus on the Family has declared itself a church, thereby allowing it to avoid an IRS requirement to file public tax documents and making them harder to audit.
Focus on the Family posted a Form 990 for the 2015 fiscal year to its website last year on October 26, reporting a budget of $89 million, alongside the message, “Not required to file and not filed with the IRS. Not for public inspection.”
The form shows the group declared its public charity status on the grounds that it is a “church, convention of churches or association of churches,” and that it hadn’t filed with the IRS, because the IRS has told it that it’s “not required” to do so. However, the group stated that it would “post a pro-forma 990 on our website and make copies available to donors.”
The group is also listed on the IRS’s master database of tax-exempt organizations as a church that is not required to file a 990.
The definition of a church by IRS standards remains murky, with factors listed on its website, but notes “organization need not have all of the characteristics (few churches do, and newly-created churches cannot be expected to); thus, no single characteristic is controlling.”
Some of those considerations include “a recognized creed and form of worship,” “a formal code of doctrine and discipline,” “regular religious services,” “Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young,” and “schools for the preparation of its ministers.”
“I just found it shocking,” Gail Harmon, an attorney who advises nonprofits on tax law, told Right Wing Watch.
“There’s nothing about them that meets the traditional definition of what a church is,” she added. “They don’t have a congregation, they don’t have the rites of various parts of a person’s life. There’s a whole system for what a church is.”
The group has been actively involved in politics, and its move into church status brings added concern.
Evangelicals have been trying to get the Johnson Amendment thrown out, thus allowing them more influence over politics. President Donald Trump signed an executive order back in May concerning the Johnson Amendment, instructing the Treasury Department to be lenient with religious organizations. The law, however, remains, despite what Trump has said, unless Congress takes action.
The Trump administration is cozy with the Focus on the Family. So much so that Vice President Mike Pence promised the administration’s unwavering support.
Focus on the Family isn’t the only religious group that has made this strategic move.
Liberty Counsel, the group that represented Kim Davis in her fight to deny same-sex couples marriage licenses, and that goes around the world advocating for draconian anti-LGBTQ laws, has been operating as a “church auxiliary,” allowing it to also get out of filing a Form 990 with the IRS, for over a decade.