Welcome to the “Parachurch”: Focus on the Family Twists the Truth to Protect Donors

Focus on the Family's Welcome Center in Colorado Springs, CO. (Photo by David Shankbone)

When Focus on the Family, the nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting a Christian fundamentalist view of the world, made a case to the IRS that its tax designation should be changed from “nonprofit religious organization” to “church,” they provided a list of reasons. In documents sent to the IRS, they explained several benefits that churches receive that Focus on the Family wanted to take advantage of. These included: exemptions from certain employee benefit programs, exclusion from mandatory health insurance coverage requirements for contraceptives, immunity from certain unemployment insurance requirements, and “religious liberty” protections provided by some states that would allow them to discriminate in employment and services.

What Focus didn’t admit to the IRS was arguably the biggest reason they wanted the new status: to guard their donors against public scrutiny. Churches, unlike other nonprofits, don’t have to submit public tax documents that list the names of their donors. Even though they didn’t admit this to the IRS, the ability to hide their donors’ identities is the only reason Paul Batura, Focus on the Family’s vice president of communications, gave to the Christian Post last week:

In recent years there have been several occasions on which nonprofit organizations were targeted for information, including the names and personal details of their donors. In order to protect our constituents’ privacy, and because Focus does, in fact, meet the definition of a church under IRS regulations, we applied for and received this designation. In doing so, we have joined the company of many other Christian nonprofit parachurch organizations … who have done likewise.

Surely every nonprofit organization would like to protect the identities of their donors, at least in some situations. But that’s not actually allowed by IRS regulations (although individual donors may request that they be listed as “anonymous”). When an organization is exempted by the government from paying taxes, that organization rightly agrees to be transparent about who supports it with donated income and how that income is spent.

Churches are the only exception to this reporting requirement. The IRS has a list of fourteen criteria that must be met to earn designation as a church. Does Focus on the Family meet the criteria? In order to do so, they identified all 600 of their employees as ministers as well as members of the congregation. They classified their cafeteria as their place of worship (because occasional services are held there). The board of directors are elders and the president is the deacon. They even declared that the daily work of the employees is worship. Welcome to the “parachurch” (interesting choice of words as the prefix “para” usually suggests objects or activities “auxiliary to or derivative of that denoted by the base word” or “productive in the naming of occupational roles considered ancillary or subsidiary to roles requiring more training, or of a higher status,” i.e. paralegal).

According to Right Wing Watch, the IRS originally felt the group failed to meet enough of the criteria and was reluctant to change their designation, but that it “gave in after Focus’ lawyers insisted that the organization meets most of the tax agency’s criteria for houses of worship and that even questioning their status as a church could violate the First Amendment.” In other words, Focus on the Family maintained that the IRS shouldn’t even be allowed to ask them questions.

Batura told Christian Post, “In a hostile environment, [emphasis mine] we’re going to do everything we can do within the parameters of the law [emphasis mine] to ensure our freedom to continue to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Batura and his compatriots at Focus on the Family actually argue that they’re living in a hostile environment. The President of the United States praises evangelicals at every turn (just watch what he says on the upcoming National Day of Prayer), the vice president and most of the cabinet count themselves among the devoutly faithful, and senators are loudly criticized for trying to examine how fundamentalist faith might inform government decisions. Still, Focus on the Family is so insecure that they’re willing to lie to the IRS to protect the names of their supporters. And even though it’s not “within the parameters of the law,” it stretches the law completely out of shape, and the IRS is letting them do it.

It would be funny—if it weren’t so dangerous.