The Family Research Council’sThe headquarters, which cost multimillions of dollars, is located on G Street in Washington, D.C., steps from the U.S. Capitol, and the White House. This spot is ideal for its work as a right wing policy think tank and political pressure group.
From its perch at the heart of the nation’s capital, the FRC has pushed for legislation banning gender-affirming surgery; filed amicus briefs supporting the overturning of Roe v. Wade; and advocated to have civil rights laws exempted from religious objections. Tony Perkins (a former state lawmaker who was also ordained as a minister) is the long-serving leader. claims creditThank you for pushing the Republican platform forward over the past 20 years.
What is the FRC? Its website sums up the answer to this question in 63 words: “A nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to articulating and advancing a family-centered philosophy of public life. In addition to providing policy research and analysis for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government, FRC seeks to inform the news media, the academic community, business leaders, and the general public about family issues that affect the nation from a biblical worldview.”
The Internal Revenue Service considers it a church, but Perkins is its religious leader.
According to documents obtained via the Freedom of Information ActAnd given to ProPublica, the FRC filed an application to change its status to an “association of churches,” a designation commonly used by groups with member churches like the Southern Baptist Convention, in March 2020. The agency approved the change just a few months later.
The FRC is one. a growing list of activist groupsTo apply for church status, an organization can be protected from financial scrutiny. The IRS granted the FRC the status of an association of churches. This exemption allowed the FRC to no longer file a public return, also known as a Form990. It revealed key staffer salaries, names of board members, and details of large payments made to independent contractors. Unlike with other charities, IRS investigators can’t initiate an audit on a church unless a high-level Treasury Department official has approved the investigation.
The FRC declined to interview officials or answer questions about this story. Its former parent organisation, Focus on the FamilyIn 2016, the organization changed its designation to become an independent church. The organization stated that it made the change primarily out of concern for donor privacy. It also noted that similar groups have made the same changes. Many of them claim that they were churches or associations of churches throughout their operations.
Warren Cole Smith, President of MinistryWatch, a Christian transparency monitor, stated that he believes groups such as these are seeking church status at the IRS in order to enjoy the protections it provides.
“I don’t believe that a lot of the organizations that have filed for the church exemption are in fact churches,” he said. “And I don’t think that they think that they are in fact churches.”
The IRS uses a list of 14 characteristicsIt is used to determine whether an organization is a church, an association of churches, or both. However, it points out that not all organizations must meet all requirements. The Family Research Council answered in the affirmative for 11 of those points, saying that it has an array of “partner churches” with a shared mission: “to hold all life as sacred, to see families flourish, and to promote religious freedom.” The group says there is no set process for a church to become one of the partners that make up its association, but it says partners (and the FRC’s employees) must affirm a statement of faith to do so. It claims there are nearly 40,000 churches in its association, made up of different creeds and beliefs — saying that this models the pattern of the “first Christian churches described in the New Testament of the Bible.”
Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, whose website hosts a directory of more than 50,000 affiliated churches, the FRC’s site does not list these partners or mention the word “church” anywhere on its home page. The FRC’s application to become an association of churches didn’t include this list of partner churches, nor did it provide the names to ProPublica.
The FRC was asked if it performed baptisms, weddings, and funerals. It said no, but that it had left those tasks to its partner churches. Did it have schools that provided religious instruction for young people? This was also the responsibility of the partner churches.
FRC claims it does not have members, but a congregation consisting of its board, employees, supporters, and partner churches. It claims that some of these partner churches do have members.
Is there a regular chapel service? According to the FRC’s letter to the IRS, the answer is yes. It stated that its office building hosts services for more than 65 employees. But it was not clear when the a ProPublica reporter called to inquire about service times, a staffer who answered the phone responded, “We don’t have church service.” Elsewhere in the form, it says that the employees make up those who attend its services.
The organization’s claim to be an association of churches is disingenuous, said Frederick Clarkson, who researches the Christian right at nonpartisan social justice think tank Political Research Associates.
“The FRC can say whatever bullshit things they want to,” he said. “The IRS should recognize it as a bad argument.”
Three experts shared their opinions ProPublicaThe IRS is failing its full powers to determine who receives the special privileges granted to churches. And when a group like the FRC appears to push the limits of what charities are allowed to do — particularly relating to their partisan political activity — the IRS doesn’t often step in to crack down. The IRS didn’t answer detailed questions or make it available for interviews.
David Cary Hart, an activist and writer who received the FRC’s reclassification documents via a Freedom of Information Act request, wrote a letter to the IRS questioning the decision, saying the approval “defies regulatory logic.”
When ProPublica relayed details of the FRC’s new church designation to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.He also decried the loss in transparency and lax IRS oversight. “It is far too easy for powerful special interests to hide their donors using webs of nonprofits,” he said in a statement. “Form 990 filings provide valuable, and often the only, insight into a tax-exempt organization’s income and spending. But lax enforcement at the IRS and DOJ encourage more game-playing, which leaves the door wide open for enterprising dark-money schemes to exploit the system further.”
A wave of conversions
After 2013, when the headof the nonprofit-to-church conversions, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association accused the IRSAfter BGEA published newspaper ads supporting a North Carolina constitutional change that defined marriage as between one woman and one man, he decided to target BGEA and the charity he heads with audits. BGEA and Samaritan’s PurseThey retained their tax-exempt status and applied for church membership in 2015.
2018 Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based legal nonprofit, was reclassified as an “association of churches” — though it had been categorized as a “church auxiliary” affiliated with Jerry Falwell’s megachurch since 2006, granting the organization many of the same exemptions that churches get. Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who refused licenses for same-sex marriages, is represented by the organization. The Supreme Court cited a Liberty Counsel brief just days after it overturned a June Supreme Court decision. Roe v. Wade, staffer for the organization was recorded saying she prays with conservative justices inside the court building — raising questions about conflicts of interest. (Liberty Counsel denied that the staffer had prayed with justices. In a written statement, founder and chairperson Mathew Staver said that the organization’s legal work is just one part of its activity, and that it made the change “to accurately reflect the operation of the ministry.”
The American Family AssociationAccording to IRS data, a Tupelo-based group called, which runs the influential American Family Radio network as well as a magazine and film studio, changed its designation from church to that of a church in the early 2022. The association sends out frequent “action alerts” to subscribers asking them to sign petitions opposing government appointees or boycott media and brands that it has identified as supporting LGBTQ rights or abortion access. The organization did not respond when we asked for comment.
The FRC wrote to the IRS arguing that the classification change would safeguard its religious liberty rights. The FRC cited Treasury Department rules that exempt church organizations from contraceptive coverage.
Churches also have a “ministerial exemption” to hiring discrimination laws for religious leaders — meaning, for example, that a Catholic church may exclude women when hiring priests. This protection has been widely interpreted by courts to protect churches from claims of discrimination due to their sexual orientation. Recent Supreme Court rulings have expanded the scope of staffers that may be covered by the exemption.
According to IRS data, FRC submitted a 990 tax report for its 2021 fiscal year. However, the agency has not released the filing. The FRC is also a member the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. This voluntary membership organization collects revenue, assets, and a small number other top-line financials from members. The organization does not report more financial information on the 990.
The FRC reported average revenues of $15.9M each year over five years ending June 2020. It also spent an average $15.6M per year. The FRC reported to ECFA that it had $23.1 million in revenues and spent $20 million during its fiscal year 2021. Perkins made approximately $300,000.
The IRS didn’t respond to questions about how many groups applied to become churches and how many it denied. Samuel Brunson, Loyola University Chicago’s law professor specializing on religion and tax exemption, said that the IRS and federal government are often very cautious in making judgments about the definition of religion.
“The First Amendment makes [defining a religion] really hard,” he said.
Brunson mentioned the Satanic Temple as an example of an organization people might not think of. It was given IRS church recognition by Brunson in 2019. Over the years, the group has been in the news for challenging the First Amendment. They have sued to have a statue depicting the goat-headed occult symbol Baphomet placed next statues of the Ten Commandments in public spaces. The temple is now suing Texas, claiming that the state’s abortion restrictions inhibit the liberty of the organization’s members to practice their religious rituals.
Lucien Greaves, a founder of the Satanic Temple, said groups like Liberty Counsel and the FRC have for years implied his organization is too political to be a church — one of the reasons the group finally sought official recognition. He called it hypocritical that these same organizations are now churches.
“People act like … we’re trying to get away with something: ‘Look, these guys want to be a church, and yet they’re active in these public campaigns,’” he said. “And they never apply those same questions to the other side.”
Politics and the Pulpit
Southern Poverty Law Center labels the FRC and Liberty Counsel as hate groups due to their anti-LGBTQ stances. But Clarkson, the researcher, said focusing on that designation misses the larger sphere of the FRC’s political influence. In recent years, he said, the FRC’s rhetoric and actions have influenced politics away from democracy and in a direction that is “distinctly theocratic.”
“Abortion and LGBT issues are not the war,” he said. “They’re battles in the war.”
IRS rules prohibit public, tax-exempt charities including churches 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.” That rule, known as the Johnson Amendment, dates back to 1954. Short of explicit political endorsements, these groups may participate in what’s known as “issue advocacy” including voter education. They can also lobby for political causes connected to their core missions, as long as the lobbying activity is not a “substantial part” of their activities.
To run its more direct political activities, the FRC has another tax-exempt organization, called a social welfare organization, that actively endorses candidates and lobbies for legislation — Family Research Council Action. The two websites provide messaging separation. The FRC hosts issues-based content that supports its Christian worldview. It links to the Family Research Council Action website for content explicitly supporting candidates.
Family Research Council Action is registered at a similar address to the FRC. It shares five of its part-time employees, including Perkins, on its tax form. This is legal so long as the organizations are careful to separate activities and accounting, such that tax-deductible charity dollars aren’t supporting political work by the social welfare organization, said Philip Hackney, a tax law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Experts say ideally a group like Family Research Council Action would have at least one independent staffer to indicate that it’s actually operating as an independent entity.
FRC Action has zero full-time employees according to its most recent tax filing. When Perkins — who is president of both organizations — is speaking, he rarely makes a delineation about whether he is speaking as the head of the FRC or the head of Family Research Council Action.
However, even for charitable activities, the lines surrounding political activities can be interpreted in any way. The FRC and other evangelical groups have been pushing for the removal all restrictions on political speech in churches for years. However, the FRC also publishes guidelines encouraging pastors to discuss political matters while staying within the bounds of the law, noting that “there are legal limits to what churches may do, but your hands are not completely tied. In fact, you may be surprised at how much influence you can have.”
On Perkins’ radio show, “Washington Watch,” he hosts a bevy of pro-Donald Trump lawmakers and political figures every day. Its annual Pray Vote Summit (formerly the Values Voter Summit) is one the most important and influential gatherings of Christians on the Christian Right. This summit allows politicians to discuss strategy with religious organizers, including Trump during his presidency. In 2021, the event’s schedule included “The Battle for America’s Classrooms: Fighting Indoctrination on a National Scale,” “The End of Roe and Beyond: The Outlook for the Unborn in America” and “A Mandate for Disaster: How States Are Fighting Biden’s Vaccine Tyranny” — the last event featuring the Ohio and Arkansas attorneys general and Perkins. FRC Action hosted the event.
In December 2020, Perkins — reportedly a close confidant of Trump’s during his presidency — signed a letter containing the false claims that state officials violated election laws and that “there is no doubt President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election.” The letter called on state lawmakers to appoint a new slate of electors to override the election President Joe Biden won. Perkins signed as “President, Family Research Council.”
Experts say it’s not clear whether seeking to influence an election after it’s already happened would run afoul of the nonprofit campaign prohibitions.
But it’s rare for a nonprofit to face a challenge for political campaign speech. A 2020 Government Accountability Office reportThe IRS only examined 226 of the 1.5 million tax-exempt entities for political activity between 2010 and 2017. It sent a warning letter to 56% of the organizations that it examined and took additional actions in 10% of cases.
Frances Hill, a law professor at the University of Miami who specializes in tax and election law, said that authorities are not keeping an eye on the fuzzy line between FRC Action and FRC, or getting involved in determining how far a charity might have strayed from the grey area. “It would take some sort of an earthquake to make the IRS use its time looking into these matters,” she said.