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IRS reverses decision denying Christian group tax-exempt status

Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Utah Rep. Burgess Owens expressed outrage at initial decision in letter to IRS

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Utah Sen. Mike Lee.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with reporters and members of the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.

Hans Koepsell, Deseret News

The Internal Revenue Service has agreed to grant tax-exempt status to a Texas-based nonprofit that urges Christians to pray for elected officials and vote after Republicans in Congress, including two from Utah, expressed outrage at its initial decision.

First Liberty Institute says the reversal came after a national backlash against the IRS’ rejection of nonprofit status for Christians Engaged because the agency claimed that “the sanctity of life, biblical marriage, and biblical justice” were associated principally with political platforms.

First Liberty Institute represented Christians Engaged in its appeal after tax-exempt status was denied because of the group’s teachings.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, were among several conservative lawmakers who sent a letter to the IRS protesting the rejection of the group’s application as a nonprofit.

“I am glad to see that after receiving our letter, the IRS reversed course on what would have been a dangerous and discriminatory decision,” Lee said in a statement. “Religious groups must be free to teach their beliefs without fear of government retaliation.” 

Rep. Burgess Owens smiles sitting at his desk at his West Jordan offices.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, poses for a photograph following an interview at his West Jordan offices on Monday, April 12, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Owens said the IRS contradicted itself and alienated people of faith with its “politically motivated and discriminatory” initial decision.

“Religious prejudice should never be tolerated, especially from our federal institutions. I’m glad to see this biased determination reviewed and corrected,” he said in a statement.

Christians Engaged, incorporated in July 2019, exists to “awaken, motivate, educate, and empower ordinary believers in Jesus Christ” to regularly pray for the country and elected officials, vote in elections and engage in political education or activism, according to its website. It applied for nonprofit status later that year.

The IRS denied the group’s application in a May 2021 letter.

“You instruct individuals on issues that are prominent in political campaigns and instruct them on what the Bible says about the issue and how they should vote,” IRS director of exempt organizations Stephen Martin wrote. “These issues include the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, and biblical justice. These issues generally distinguish candidates and are associated with political party platforms.”

Martin also cited Christian Engaged’s teachings regarding “freedom of speech, defense, … borders and immigration, (and) U.S. and Israel relations.”

The letter signed by Lee and Owens called the reasoning behind the denial “blatantly biased, discriminatory and flawed.”

“Millions of Americans draw deeply from their religious beliefs to inform how they vote and many religious organizations conduct get out the vote efforts. In fact, President Biden himself campaigned alongside church leaders during the 2020 presidential race,” according to the letter.

Christians Engaged President Bunni Pounds said in a statement that she is thankful the IRS did the right thing and looks forward to continuing the group’s mission of educating more followers of Jesus to pray for our nation and to be civically engaged.