Right-wing think tank Family Research Council now a church in eyes of IRS
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
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The Family Research Council’s multimillion-dollar headquarters sit on G Street in Washington, D.C., just steps from the U.S. Capitol and the White House, a spot ideally situated for its work as a right-wing policy think tank and political pressure group.
From its perch at the heart of the nation’s capital, the FRC has pushed for legislation banning gender-affirming surgery; filed amicus briefs supporting the overturning of Roe v. Wade; and advocated for religious exemptions to civil rights laws. Its longtime head, a former state lawmaker and ordained minister named Tony Perkins, claims credit for pushing the Republican platform rightward over the past two decades.
What is the FRC? Its website sums up the answer to this question in 63 words: “A nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to articulating and advancing a family-centered philosophy of public life. In addition to providing policy research and analysis for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government, FRC seeks to inform the news media, the academic community, business leaders, and the general public about family issues that affect the nation from a biblical worldview.”
In the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, though, it is also a church, with Perkins as its religious leader.
According to documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and given to ProPublica, the FRC filed an application to change its status to an “association of churches,” a designation commonly used by groups with member churches like the Southern Baptist Convention, in March 2020. The agency approved the change a few months later.
The FRC is one of a growing list of activist groups to seek church status, a designation that comes with the ability for an organization to shield itself from financial scrutiny. Once the IRS blessed it as an association of churches, the FRC was no longer required to file a public tax return, known as a Form 990, revealing key staffer salaries, the names of board members and related organizations, large payments to independent contractors and grants the organization has made.
Unlike with other charities, IRS investigators can’t initiate an audit on a church unless a high-level Treasury Department official has approved the investigation.
The FRC declined to make officials available for an interview or answer any questions for this story. Its former parent organization, Focus on the Family, changed its designation to become a church in 2016. In a statement, the organization said it made the switch largely out of concern for donor privacy, noting that many groups like it have made the same change. Many of them claim they operated in practice as churches or associations of churches all along.
Warren Cole Smith, president of the Christian transparency watchdog MinistryWatch, said he believes groups like these are seeking church status with the IRS for the protections it confers.
“I don’t believe that a lot of the organizations that have filed for the church exemption are in fact churches,” he said. “And I don’t think that they think that they are in fact churches.”
The IRS uses a list of 14 characteristics to determine if an organization is a church or an association of churches, though it notes that organizations need not meet all the specifications. The Family Research Council answered in the affirmative for 11 of those points, saying that it has an array of “partner churches” with a shared mission: “to hold all life as sacred, to see families flourish, and to promote religious freedom.”
The group says there is no set process for a church to become one of the partners that make up its association, but it says partners (and the FRC’s employees) must affirm a statement of faith to do so. It claims there are nearly 40,000 churches in its association, made up of different creeds and beliefs — saying that this models the pattern of the “first Christian churches described in the New Testament of the Bible.”
Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, whose website hosts a directory of more than 50,000 affiliated churches, the FRC’s site does not list these partners or mention the word “church” anywhere on its home page. The FRC’s application to become an association of churches didn’t include this list of partner churches, nor did it provide the names to ProPublica.
To the question of whether the organization performs baptisms, weddings and funerals, the FRC answered yes, but it said it left those duties to its partner churches. Did it have schools for religious instruction of the young? That, too, was the job of the partner churches.
The FRC says it does not have members but a congregation made up of its board of directors, employees, supporters and partner churches. Some of those partner churches, it says, do have members.
Does the organization hold regular chapel services? According to the FRC’s letter to the IRS, the answer is yes. It wrote that it holds services at its office building averaging more than 65 people. But when a ProPublica reporter called to inquire about service times, a staffer who answered the phone responded, “We don’t have church service.” Elsewhere in the form, it says that the employees make up those who attend its services.
The organization’s claim to be an association of churches is disingenuous, said Frederick Clarkson, who researches the Christian right at nonpartisan social justice think tank Political Research Associates.
“The FRC can say whatever bullshit things they want to,” he said. “The IRS should recognize it as a bad argument.”
Three experts told ProPublica that the IRS is failing to use its full powers to determine who gets the special privileges afforded to churches. And when a group like the FRC appears to push the limits of what charities are allowed to do — particularly relating to their partisan political activity — the IRS doesn’t often step in to crack down. The IRS did not answer a list of detailed questions for this story or make anyone available for an interview.
David Cary Hart, an activist and writer who received the FRC’s reclassification documents via a Freedom of Information Act request, wrote a letter to the IRS questioning the decision, saying the approval “defies regulatory logic.”
When ProPublica relayed details of the FRC’s new church designation to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., he decried the loss of transparency and lax IRS oversight. “It is far too easy for powerful special interests to hide their donors using webs of nonprofits,” he said in a statement. “Form 990 filings provide valuable, and often the only, insight into a tax-exempt organization’s income and spending. But lax enforcement at the IRS and DOJ encourage more game-playing, which leaves the door wide open for enterprising dark-money schemes to exploit the system further.”
A wave of conversions
The current wave of nonprofit-to-church conversions appears to have gained steam after 2013, when the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association accused the IRS of targeting BGEA and another charity he heads with audits after the group took out newspaper ads supporting a North Carolina constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. The groups, BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse, retained their tax-exempt status, and in 2015, they applied for church status and got it.
In 2018, Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based legal nonprofit, was reclassified as an “association of churches” — though it had been categorized as a “church auxiliary” affiliated with Jerry Falwell’s megachurch since 2006, granting the organization many of the same exemptions that churches get. The organization represents Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue licenses for same-sex marriages.
Just days after the Supreme Court cited a Liberty Counsel brief in its June decision overturning Roe v. Wade, a staffer for the organization was recorded saying she prays with conservative justices inside the court building — raising questions about conflicts of interest. (Liberty Counsel denies that the staffer prayed with justices.) In a written statement, founder and chairperson Mathew Staver said that the organization’s legal work is just one part of its activity, and that it made the change “to accurately reflect the operation of the ministry.”
The American Family Association, a Tupelo, Mississippi-based group that runs the influential American Family Radio network, as well as a film studio and magazine, changed its designation to a church in early 2022, according to IRS data. The association sends out frequent “action alerts” to subscribers asking them to sign petitions opposing government appointees or boycott media and brands that it has identified as supporting LGBTQ rights or abortion access. The organization declined to respond to a request for comment.
In its letter to the IRS, the FRC argued that the classification change would protect its religious liberty rights. As an example, it pointed to Treasury Department rules exempting church organizations from the mandatory coverage requirements for contraceptives.
Churches also have a “ministerial exemption” to hiring discrimination laws for religious leaders — meaning, for example, that a Catholic church may exclude women when hiring priests. Courts have interpreted this protection broadly, shielding churches from claims of discrimination for sexual orientation as well. Recent Supreme Court rulings have broadened the umbrella of staffers who may be included under the exemption.
According to IRS data, the FRC has submitted a 990 tax return for its 2021 fiscal year, but the agency has not yet released the filing. The organization is also a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a voluntary membership organization that collects revenue, expenses, assets and a small number of other top-line financials from its members. The organization does not collect more detailed financial data reported on the 990.
Over the five years ending June 2020, the FRC saw average revenues of $15.9 million each year, and it spent an average of $15.6 million. In its fiscal year 2021, the FRC reported to ECFA, it brought in $23.1 million and spent $20 million. In the most recent 990, Perkins made about $300,000.
The IRS did not answer questions about how many groups apply to become a church and how many applications it denies. Samuel Brunson, a law professor specializing in religion and tax exemption at Loyola University Chicago, said the federal government, and especially the IRS, are typically very cautious when it comes to making judgments about defining religion.
“The First Amendment makes [defining a religion] really hard,” he said.
Brunson pointed to the Satanic Temple, which received IRS church recognition in 2019, as an example of an organization that people may not consider one. The group has made headlines over the years for mounting First Amendment challenges such as suing to have a statue of the goat-headed occult icon Baphomet placed next to statues of the Ten Commandments in public places. The temple is now suing Texas, claiming that the state’s abortion restrictions inhibit the liberty of the organization’s members to practice their religious rituals.
Lucien Greaves, a founder of the Satanic Temple, said groups like Liberty Counsel and the FRC have for years implied his organization is too political to be a church — one of the reasons the group finally sought official recognition. The fact that those same organizations are now themselves churches, he said, is hypocritical.
“People act like ... we’re trying to get away with something: ‘Look, these guys want to be a church, and yet they’re active in these public campaigns,’” he said. “And they never apply those same questions to the other side.”
Politics and the pulpit
The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the FRC, Liberty Counsel and the American Family Association as hate groups for their anti-LGBTQ stances and advocacy. But Clarkson, the researcher, said focusing on that designation misses the larger sphere of the FRC’s political influence. In recent years, he said, the FRC’s rhetoric and actions have influenced politics away from democracy and in a direction that is “distinctly theocratic.”
“Abortion and LGBT issues are not the war,” he said. “They’re battles in the war.”
IRS rules prohibit public, tax-exempt charities including churches from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” That rule, known as the Johnson Amendment, dates back to 1954. Short of explicit political endorsements, these groups may participate in what’s known as “issue advocacy” including voter education. They can also lobby for political causes connected to their core missions, as long as the lobbying activity is not a “substantial part” of their activities.
To run its more direct political activities, the FRC has another tax-exempt organization, called a social welfare organization, that actively endorses candidates and lobbies for legislation — Family Research Council Action. The arms separate out messaging on two websites, with the FRC hosting issues-based content supporting its Christian worldview and linking to the Family Research Council Action website for content that explicitly endorses candidates.
Family Research Council Action is registered at the same address as the FRC and shares all five of the part-time employees it lists on its tax form, including Perkins. This is legal so long as the organizations are careful to separate activities and accounting, such that tax-deductible charity dollars aren’t supporting political work by the social welfare organization, said Philip Hackney, a tax law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Experts say ideally a group like Family Research Council Action would have at least one independent staffer to indicate that it’s actually operating as an independent entity.
But FRC Action lists zero full-time employees on its most recent tax filing. When Perkins — who is president of both organizations — is speaking, he rarely makes a delineation about whether he is speaking as the head of the FRC or the head of Family Research Council Action.
But even for charitable operations, the lines around political activities are open to interpretation. While the FRC and other evangelical groups have pushed for the removal of all restrictions on political speech by churches for years, the FRC also releases guidelines encouraging pastors to discuss political matters while staying within the bounds of the law, noting that “there are legal limits to what churches may do, but your hands are not completely tied. In fact, you may be surprised at how much influence you can have.”
On Perkins’ radio show, “Washington Watch,” he hosts a bevy of pro-Donald Trump lawmakers and political figures every day. Its annual Pray Vote Stand Summit, formerly known as the Values Voter Summit, is one of the largest and most influential gatherings for those on the Christian right, where politicians, including Trump during his presidency, talk strategy with religious organizers. In 2021, the event’s schedule included “The Battle for America’s Classrooms: Fighting Indoctrination on a National Scale,” “The End of Roe and Beyond: The Outlook for the Unborn in America” and “A Mandate for Disaster: How States Are Fighting Biden’s Vaccine Tyranny” — the last event featuring the Ohio and Arkansas attorneys general and Perkins. The event was hosted by both the FRC and FRC Action.
In December 2020, Perkins — reportedly a close confidant of Trump’s during his presidency — signed a letter containing the false claims that state officials violated election laws and that “there is no doubt President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election.” The letter called on state lawmakers to appoint a new slate of electors to override the election President Joe Biden won. Perkins signed as “President, Family Research Council.”
Experts say it’s not clear whether seeking to influence an election after it’s already happened would run afoul of the nonprofit campaign prohibitions.
But it’s rare for a nonprofit to face a challenge for political campaign speech. A 2020 Government Accountability Office report found that, between 2010 and 2017, the IRS examined just 226 of more than 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations for political activity. It sent a written warning to 56% of the organizations it examined and took additional action in just 10% of cases.
Scrutinizing the fuzzy line between FRC and FRC Action, or getting involved in how far out of the gray area a charity may have strayed, is not something that authorities are keeping a close eye on, said Frances Hill, a law professor specializing in tax and election law at the University of Miami. “It would take some sort of an earthquake to make the IRS use its time looking into these matters,” she said.