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Right-wing think tanks are trying to become churches. Here's why

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins speaks at the 2018 Values Voter Summit in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins speaks at the 2018 Values Voter Summit in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Susan Walsh/AP)

In the eyes of the IRS, the Family Research Council — a conservative think tank — qualifies as a church.

Led by Tony Perkins and founded in the early 1980s, the group has a long history of opposing abortion rights and same-sex marriage. The self-described research and educational organization applied for an IRS status change to become an association of churches in 2020, says ProPublica’s Andrea Suozzo, who broke the story. And it’s just the latest group on the political right to earn that tax status.

The Family Research Council argued that it fits 11 of the 14 criteria used by the IRS to determine what constitutes a church, Suozzo reports. The organization stated it works with a network of churches to put on events, and that Perkins and several other of the group’s leaders are ordained ministers in the Southern Baptist Church.

In addition to the tax benefits nonprofits get, churches don’t have to file the same Form 990 financial disclosures as other charities. Unlike other nonprofits, churches aren’t required to report salaries for top employees, the names of board members, their top line financials or which independent contractors they work with. Churches can also make a case for exemptions from hiring discrimination laws.

“I think there are some concerns about organizations applying for the status change for these benefits without necessarily actually resembling what one might think of as a church,” Suozzo says.

The Family Research Center reported holding regular, employee-focused worship services on its application to the IRS. But when Suozzo called the organization, the person she spoke to said the group did not hold church services.

In terms of conservative Christian groups, this isn’t an isolated incident: In her reporting, Suozzo identified more organizations making a similar switch to church designation, such as The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in the mid-2010s, Focus on the Family in 2016 and Liberty Council in 2018.

“These are specifically religious organizations. They are Christian organizations, but they also are doing things that don’t necessarily resemble what you would think of a church typically doing,” she says. “They’re doing lawsuits and they are issuing policy papers. They’re doing a lot of advocacy.”

The Family Research Council didn’t comment for Suozzo’s story, but Focus on the Family and Liberty Council both said the change in status reflects that they’ve always operated as a church. And Focus on the Family emphasized wanting to protect donor information, she says.

Experts have expressed concerns about the IRS’s ability to regulate these organizations, Suozzo says. And on Tuesday, 40 Democratic lawmakers outlined concerns about the Family Research Council’s status in a letter to the head of the IRS and the secretary of the Treasury.

“The folks I spoke to did have some concerns about this loss of information,” Suozzo says.

Thomas Danielian produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe BullardAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

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