Politics

Who Gets to Be a Church These Days?

The white cut-out of a church and steeple, on a red background, has the words "PAC" written on it.
Photo illustration by Slate.

The Family Research Council is a notorious right-wing policy think tank and lobbying group that has for decades promoted anti-LGBTQ causes with such intensity the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled it a hate group.

But according to a report from ProPublica published on Monday, since 2020, it has also been designated as an “association of churches.”

In practical terms, this means that the FRC, as a religious institution, does not need to publicly file a Form 990 that allows anyone to get insight into its financial workings, including into certain assets, grants, and large salaries. It also makes it harder for the IRS to audit the group.

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It does not mean, however, that the FRC has suddenly remade itself into something entirely new. Instead, according to ProPublica, it simply claimed it had “partner churches” that shared in its goal of promoting pro-life and “religious freedom” causes, as well as helping “families flourish,” which is typically code for opposing LGBTQ rights. (The FRC also opposes pornography and divorce and promotes abstinence-based sex education and “parental rights.”)

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The FRC also claimed, on tax forms, that it holds chapel services at its office building for employees.

Perhaps on paper the group was able to differentiate itself enough from its independent political arm, the Family Research Council Action, which does the more explicitly partisan work for the broader organization, endorsing candidates and lobbying for certain bills. But in reality, the two share the same employees and address. (Until he was accused of molesting multiple young girls, Josh Duggar, who was recently imprisoned for child pornography, was FRC Action’s executive director.)

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The nonprofit was formed about 30 years ago as a spin-off of the powerful fundamentalist policy group Focus on the Family because its political work endangered Focus on the Family’s tax-exempt status. And it’s not like the work has gotten less political. FRC’s current president, Tony Perkins, reportedly had a cozy relationship with President Donald Trump and was one of the key advocates behind Trump’s military transgender ban.

But the FRC is only the latest such group to claim religious exemptions.

In 2015, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association also attained church status. Soon afterward, Focus on the Family publicly declared itself a church. (According to the Washington Post, it had changed its status to protect donors’ identities; it still voluntarily releases financial information in its 990s.) In 2018, the far-right legal group Liberty Counsel, which represented Kentucky clerk Kim Davis in her efforts to avoid giving licenses for same-sex marriages, was given the same reclassification. (Like Perkins, Liberty Counsel supported the efforts to overthrow the 2020 election.)

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Avoiding public scrutiny isn’t the only reason an evangelical nonprofit might want to register as a church. A key point here, particularly with a judiciary so currently inclined toward prioritizing religious interests, is that being labeled a religious group might protect nonprofits legally if they’re found to be discriminating against potential gay employees or are getting into other legal disputes over LGBTQ rights.

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It also fits with a broader trend: In the last few years, Christian nationalists have begun to campaign more aggressively against the ideas that underpin the IRS rules and the very concept of the separation of church and state. In April, Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, went ahead and called that a “myth.” In May, the right-wing megachurch pastor Greg Locke announced that he had “dissolved” his church’s tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status “’cause the government ain’t gonna tell me what I can and what I can’t say.” Recently, Rep. Lauren Boebert said she was “tired of this separation of church and state junk.”

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These Christian nationalists have one particular target in mind when they make many of these complaints: the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment, which has been around since 1954, requires nonprofits to avoid endorsing and funding political candidates or lobbying for specific legislation. (They can still engage in “issue advocacy.”) Churches have long complained about being muzzled by the rule. In 2017, Trump signed an executive order deprioritizing its enforcement, having promised during his campaign to scrap it altogether. For many Christian right-wingers, who have already won recent battles against secularism in education, the boundaries between church and politics is next.

The big picture: When politically active nonprofits openly claim “religious freedom” protections, it is more than just a savvy way to cut down on paperwork. It’s a sign that evangelical groups are feeling increasingly emboldened in their belief that the separation between church and state is, in practical terms, a myth.

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