The LDS Church, Proposition Eight, and the Federal Law of Charities
9 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2008 Last revised: 5 Jan 2009
Date Written: December 30, 2008
This brief Commentary considers the merits of the argument that the Mormon Church's support for Proposition Eight violated federal tax law. I take as given the facts reported by the New York Times and other major news outlets. Although the facts are not really in dispute, much of the underlying law is. There are few clear guidelines governing lobbying by charities. In the end it is impossible to say with certainty whether the Church's conduct will have any tax-law repercussions. My conclusion that there is uncertainty, though, stands in contrast with existing claims that the expenditures of the LDS Church and others are clearly unproblematic.
In addition to its potential interest for those following closely the Proposition Eight saga, my discussion here is aimed at revealing some of the weaknesses of the law of charities. In particular, the Proposition Eight episode exposes a serious hole in the fabric of the federal law: the possibility that massive, multi-million dollar lobbying expenditures, large enough to swamp any opposition, may be perfectly legitimate, so long as they are undertaken by a sufficiently gigantic organization. It is hard to see a good justification for a rule that would, in effect, grant political influence only to the largest charities, but that seems to be one plausible interpretation of current law (albeit an interpretation I argue against here). Further, recent events show again that the IRS so far has failed to grapple with the most important questions surrounding the rules against lobbying, such as the problem of how to value the use of mailing lists, web sites, e-mail, and phone trees - tools that now are central to modern politics.
Keywords: 501(c)(3), lobbying, propaganda, charity
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