What do you call an organization whose president said same-sex marriage crossed moral boundaries and called pedophilia a “homosexual problem?” The Southern Poverty Law Center called it a hate group. The U.S. government? A church.
The Family Research Council (FRC) was given tax-exempt church status by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2020, according to a July 11 report from ProPublica. In filings obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the Washington, D.C.-based right-wing lobby group claimed that FRC president Tony Perkins acted in a role analogous to a religious leader. The organization further alleged that its “congregants” are its employees, supporters, board of directors and partner churches.
Being designated as a church makes it unnecessary for FRC to file a public tax return, allowing it to withhold staffers’ salaries, the names of board members and large payments or grants made to independent contractors. It also prevents the IRS from auditing the group without approval from a senior member of the Treasury Department.
Warren Cole Smith, president of the Christian watchdog group MinistryWatch, told ProPublica that the IRS failed to see that the FRC applied for church status in bad faith.
“I don’t believe that a lot of the organizations that have filed for the church exemption are in fact churches,” he told the nonprofit newsroom. “And I don’t think that they think that they are in fact churches.”
Frederick Clarkson, a researcher of the Christian right at the nonpartisan think tank Political Research Associates, agreed. “The FRC can say whatever bullshit things they want to,” he said. “The IRS should recognize it as a bad argument.”
From its inception in the 1980s, the FRC has been one of the leading opponents of LGBTQ2S+ equality both in the U.S. and around the world. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), leaders of the organization have asserted that LGBTQ2S+ people are more likely to sexually abuse young children and engage in domestic violence. The organization has advocated for conversion therapy and the recriminalization of homosexuality.
Perkins, a key advisor to former U.S. president Donald Trump, has accused LGBTQ2S+ people of “luring children into sexual confusion” to further “their real intentions of recruiting kids.” He has also called LGBTQ2S+ activists “hateful,” “vile” and “spiteful” and targeted the “It Gets Better” anti-bullying movement as “disgusting.”
Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at FRC, wrote a book advocating against same-sex marriage. He has also called for LGBTQ2S+ people to be deported, claimed trans people are mentally ill and alleged that homosexuality is “objectively harmful.”
The FRC is just one of many Christian conservative groups that have sought—and won—church status since the early 2010s.
According to ProPublica, these organizations have included the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which took out a newspaper ad in 2013 advocating against same-sex marriage. Other right-wing tax-exempt organizations include Samaritan’s Purse, a evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization founded by anti-LGBTQ2S+ minister Franklin Graham. Graham is a vocal support of Russia’s anti-gay “propganda” ban and once said that attending a Pride parade is akin to supporting “lying, adultery or murder,” as GLAAD reports.
These exemptions are reportedly illegal under U.S. law. Public, tax-exempt churches are banned 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,” per the 1954 Johnson Amendment.
FRC gets around this by outsourcing its more forward political activities to Family Research Council Action, another tax-exempt organization that explicitly endorses political candidates, but the line between the two organizations is thin, if extant at all. The two groups listed the same address and the same five part-time employees on its taxes, per ProPublica. The FRC’s website consistently links to FRC Action’s content.