|FOTF founder and Trump BFF, James Dobson|
I have long believed that all churches that are not putting the vast majority of their revenues toward true charitable purposes -e.g., feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, aiding the poor, etc. - should not be afforded tax-exempt status. Now, another glaring example of the manner in which taxpayers are being forced to indirectly financially underwrite non-charities is provided by Focus on the Family ("FOTF") which has annual revenues of over $89 million has declared itself a "church." Where does FOTF spend its money? One one, it is a leading purveyor of anti-gay lies and disinformation. It also seeks to control elected officials who will push its Christian dominionist agenda. And, of course, its leadership cadre laughs all the way to the bank. Very little of the moneys reach what most people would consider true charitable works. Right Wing Watch looks at this latest abuse of the Internal Revenue Code and IRS rules. Here are highlights:
Focus on the Family, the behemoth Religious Right organization founded by James Dobson, has declared itself to be a church, thereby avoiding a requirement that it file public tax documents, according to IRS records and a document available on the organization’s website.
Focus on the Family filed as a non-church 501(c)(3) nonprofit as recently as the 2014 fiscal year, submitting to the IRS a publicly available Form 990 as most tax-exempt nonprofits are required to do. But when the group posted a Form 990 for the 2015 fiscal year on its website—dated October 26, 2017, and reporting a massive budget of $89 million—it was emblazoned with the message “Not required to file and not filed with the IRS. Not for public inspection.”
On the part of the form on which it is required to identify the reason for its public charity status, the group indicates that it is a “church, convention of churches or association of churches.”
Focus on the Family declaring itself to be a church is puzzling. While the Colorado Springs-based organization has somewhat softened its image since it was led by the firebrand Dobson, it remains active in political debates and advocacy (even in a nominally nonpartisan way). A “social issues” section on the group’s website currently features information on a supposed threat to bathroom safety posed by transgender people thanks to LGBTQ activists fighting in politics, churches and popular culture, and contains an update on “cultural issues in the courts.”
Gail Harmon, an attorney who has advised nonprofits on tax law for more than 30 years, said that she had never before seen a nonprofit organization declare itself a church. “I just found it shocking,” she said.
“There’s nothing about them that meets the traditional definition of what a church is,” she said. “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 IRS lists a number of factors that it considers in determining whether an organization is a church, including whether it has a “definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,” “established places of worship” and “regular religious services,” but notes that an organization “need not have all of the characteristics” listed in order to be considered a church.
We have requested documents on the tax status change from Focus on the Family and from the IRS. Focus on the Family has not responded to our request for comment.