The big question is should denominations that have billions of dollars of investments, millions of dollars of annual income from the interest off those investments, and largely political agendas, be tax exempt?
If the PCUSA were to lose its 501c3 Federal Tax Exempt status (a scenario that is highly improbable) what impact would that have on its mission? What would the trickle down effect be on the congregations? For those congregations whose tax exempt status is piggy-backed on the denomination, would people stop giving to the church just because they no longer received a tax benefit? If so, what does that say about the genuine “religious” motivation of those donors? I suspect these are the larger questions we ought to be considering as religious liberty finds its definition increasingly constricted in our evermore “freedom from religion” culture.
The issue in this complaint is ultimately a question of whether or not religious groups, who want to engage freely and fully in partisan political advocacy, should be tax exempt. Asked another way, if the PCUSA wants to spend itself primarily on political issues then should it not simply render its 501c3 status and free itself from the kind of accusations being leveled against it?
But that’s the not question being asked by most people. Neither is the first question being raised about the substance or veracity of the accusations. The first query is about the organization that filed the complaint. So, is this just a frivolous lawsuit or is there merit to the accusations?
Is the complaint frivolous?
The meetings referred to in the complaint between representatives of the PCUSA and the terrorist organization Hezbollah took place in 2004 and 2005. Two Presbyterian staff members were subsequently fired. End of story, right? Wrong. One of those two people, Kathy Leukert, lost a prominent position at the denomination’s headquarters but landed in another denominational post as the stated clerk of Seattle Presbytery. She also served on a national denominational special committee from 2010-2014.
But it’s not just a meeting with Hezbollah nine years ago about which questions are being raised.
The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly continually issues biased statements on Israel-Palestine. Even when he is speaking “for” Israel, he tends to mention their “illegal” occupation or something similar. On July 16, 2014 in a statement on the crisis in Gaza, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons said:
“… is particular chain of events, another tragic evidence of the impact of the illegal Israeli occupation, began with the unjustifiable murder of three Israeli youth by Palestinians, Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel. The Israeli Military unjustifiably killed five Palestinians in pursuit of their murderers, Mustafa Hosni Aslan, Mahmoud Jihad Muhammad Dudeen, Ahmad Famawi, Ahmad Said Suod Khalid, and Mahmoud Ismail Atallah Tarifi. Then Mohammad Abu Khedair was abducted and murdered by Jewish citizens of Israel. In the wake of these terrible events, Hamas rockets have been indiscriminately fired, and Israeli Defense Forces have used overwhelming force.”
The Stated Clerk then lists the names of another 174 Palestinians “as victims of this violence …” but never lists the names of the Israelis killed in the conflict. Does that reveal a bias toward one side? This from the elected leader of a denomination whose official position remains a peaceful two-state solution?
The November 13, 2012 “Statement on the Escalating Violence in and around Gaza” issued by the Stated Clerk was similarly inflammatory. Therein he says,
“… Our General Assemblies have called over and over again for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, with its daily humiliation of Palestinian citizens and continual encroachment on Palestinian territory. It should be clear to anyone with eyes to see, that the occupation, with its oppression of the Palestinian population, is a form of systemic violence which remains a barrier to peace which must be removed….”
The PCUSA Israel-Palestine Mission Network
Denominational leadership continually tries to distance itself from the Israel-Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) which published the offensive “Zionism Unsettled” study guide but it cannot escape the fact that the IPMN was formed by an action of the General Assembly. Nor can it deny that the expressly anti-Semitic document continues to be promoted as “Presbyterian.”
Denominational lobbyists in Washington
The ongoing lop-sided advocacy by the denomination’s Office of Public Witness in Washington is evident in the fall 2014 publication of “Advocacy as Discipleship, Holy Discontent: Boycott!.”
Official Social Witness Policy
The Presbyterian Mission Agency employee who serves as the Coordinator for the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) is Chris Iosso. He also serves as the editor of the denomination’s official publication, Unbound. In a 2012 issue Iosso’s particular political position in relationship to Israel/Palestine are made clear.
Then there’s the whole issue of the action taken by the General Assembly of the PCUSA in June 2014 to “divest” from holdings in three corporations (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard) for what the PCUSA categorizes as “non peaceful” pursuits. That action of the General Assembly in 2014 was the culmination of an internal 12 year process (called Mission Responsibility Through Investment, MRTI). Many argue that the Assembly’s divestment action was co-opted by the larger Boycott/Divest/Sanction (BDS) movement when, in fact, aligning with BDS was not the intent of the Assembly. The Moderator the General Assembly made efforts to clarify and parse those details following the Assembly. The overwhelming perception remains that “Presbyterians” have divested from Israel. That is not true but it is also not wholly false.
What can be demonstrated is that the MRTI process chose a singular focus on the end use of products by Israel. That, it can be argued, reveals a deep bias. Why did the process not look at the end use of products by easily identifiable oppressive regimes and genuinely hostile nations? Why single out Israel? Those are the kinds of questions that remain unanswered.
So, are the allegations true?
Truth. This is where relativism and its 50 shades of grey cause us such trouble. We live in a culture that desperately wants to allow each person to have their own independent take on “truth” and yet, truth is either true or truth isn’t truth at all.
In the matter of the PCUSA and its political advocacy, the assessment depends on perspective. The denomination will point to its official statements (espoused theology) and those making the allegations will point to the actual actions (theology in practice). Others will argue that the political advocacy of the denomination is but a tiny fraction of the denomination’s mission.
One broader question that might be mulled is how one ought to distinguish between the rightful (and needful) influence of the Church in the politics as a part of its social witness and the progressive political advocacy machines that some denominations have become. I do not personally think that the IRS makes the best arbiter of that debate but the conversation needs to be had and this is certainly one way to get people talking.
Update: (12/18/14) What does the IRS say about compliance for 501c3’s?