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TikTok and Pastor Greg Locke IRS Controversy

On May 24 2022, a number of Imgur posts showed screenshots of a Twitter discussion about a purported “TikTok trend” involving television pastor Greg Locke, the Internal Revenue Service, and mass reporting churches engaging in political activity:

LibsOfTikTok ‘Doxxed’ Controver...
LibsOfTikTok ‘Doxxed’ Controversy

Looking for a challenge?  Look no further ….

Anatomy of the Claim, and Discourse About TikTok IRS Reports Against Greg Locke

On Facebook, the page “The Other 98%” shared a better quality version of the same screenshot.

First up was a May 23 2022 tweet from Brian Tyler Cohen, which read:

NEW: A pastor in Tennessee [Greg Locke] just said his church is no longer tax-exempt after TikTok users submitted complaints to the IRS because he went on a rabid rant at his church saying Democrats can’t be Christian and yelled “you ain’t seen an insurrection yet!”

In response to Cohen’s tweet, user @Leamander1 said:

Is this true? Can people report churches to the IRS? If so, I think that would be a great new tiktok challenge.

A mere mention of a “TikTok challenge” seemed to transmute the claim into an existing trend on TikTok. Within an hour, another very popular tweet proclaimed:

Remember the belligerent pastor from Tennessee who said: “Democrats can’t be Christian!” and: “You ain’t seen an insurrection – yet!” Well, after a multitude of IRS complaints (coordinated through TikTok users), his church HAS JUST LOST ITS TAX-EXEMPT STATUS!

Roughly two hours after that, Cohen followed up with a second tweet which received far less engagement. Notably, Cohen effectively nullified his initial, extremely viral claim:

I just called the IRS to check on the tax-exempt status of Greg Locke’s church. I was told there is “no record of tax exempt recognition by the IRS.” So either he relinquished its 501(c)(3) status or it didn’t have it to begin with, but either way, it’s subject to taxation now.

Cohen stated that he placed a call to the IRS to verify his own tweet, and “was told” that there was “no record of tax exempt recognition by the IRS” for Locke’s church. Cohen concluded that Locke either “relinquished its 501(c)(3) status or it didn’t have it to begin with,” undermining the claim that social media-inspired actions had deprived Locke of his church’s tax exempt status.

Cohen added that it was difficult to rule out records without knowing all possible organization names, further muddying the claim:

I should note that there’s always the possibility that any tax exempt entity is/was using a different name that doesn’t include Greg Locke or Global Vision. I’m limited in what I could find out as someone who’s not an authorized representative of his organization.

In any event, the wildly popular claim was largely in the realm of “he said, and then he also said,” and none of the discourse linked to any relevant TikTok videos providing any evidence of any coordinated action on the platform. Google Trends data for the week ending May 24 2022 revealed interconnected topics about Locke, the IRS, 501(c)(3) status, and TikTok.

Popular searches included “Greg Locke IRS,” “Greg Locke church,” “Greg Locke pastor,” “IRS form 13909,” and “Global Vision Bible Church.”

Why Would the IRS Care About Greg Locke and Political Sermons?

One undercurrent of the tangled discussion was about the IRS; Locke should be considered the head of a church in this context.

The IRS itself clarified the issue on an IRS.gov page titled “Charities, Churches and Politics,” last updated on March 28 2022. The page explained:

The ban on political campaign activity by charities and churches was created by Congress more than a half century ago. The Internal Revenue Service administers the tax laws written by Congress and has enforcement authority over tax-exempt organizations. Here is some background information on the political campaign activity ban and the latest IRS enforcement statistics regarding its administration of this congressional ban.

In 1954, Congress approved an amendment by Sen. Lyndon Johnson to prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity. To the extent Congress has revisited the ban over the years, it has in fact strengthened the ban. The most recent change came in 1987 when Congress amended the language to clarify that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.

Currently, the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

The IRS has published Revenue Ruling 2007-41PDF, which outlines how churches, and all 501(c)(3) organizations, can stay within the law regarding the ban on political activity. Also, the ban by Congress is on political campaign activity regarding a candidate; churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations can engage in a limited amount of lobbying (including ballot measures) and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena. The IRS also has provided guidance regarding the difference between advocating for a candidate and advocating for legislation. See political and lobbying activities.

Each election cycle, the IRS reminds 501(c)(3) exempt organizations to be aware of the ban on political campaign activity. The IRS published its most recent reminder in a public news release which you can read here.

The division within the IRS responsible for overseeing churches and charities is the Tax Exempt and Government Entitities [sic] Division. TEGE has created a Web page entitled Charities, Churches, and Educational Organizations – Political Campaign Intervention. It is dedicated to the IRS most recent activities related to 501(c)(3) and political activity.

A definitive court case on the issue of free speech and political expression is Branch Ministries Inc. versus Rossotti. In that case, the court upheld the constitutionality of the ban on political activity. The court rejected the plaintiff church’s allegations that it was being selectively prosecuted because of its conservative views and that its First Amendment right to free speech was being infringed.

The court wrote: “The government has a compelling interest in maintaining the integrity of the tax system and in not subsidizing partisan political activity, and Section 501(c)(3) is the least restrictive means of accomplishing that purpose.”

In short, churches with 501(c)(3) tax exemptions are strictly prohibited from engaging in political activity, under penalty of loss of their tax-exempt status. Per a Middle Tennessee State University entry, Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Johnson Amendment to the Internal Revenue Code in response to an increase in political activity by tax-exempt organizations in the mid 1950s:

The amendment is named after then Senator (later President) Lyndon B. Johnson, who introduced the amendment out of concern about the Facts Forum and the Committee for Constitutional Government. Both were tax-exempt organizations that had imitated the tactics of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R., WI) in campaigning against politicians like Johnson who were more liberal in their political orientations.

What is IRS Form 13909?

Google Trends searches relating to Greg Locke and the IRS included searches for IRS Form 13909.

IRS.gov hosted a PDF copy of Form 13909. A separate entry (“IRS Complaint Process – Tax-Exempt Organizations”) instructed taxpayers on when, why, and how to use the form:

If you suspect a tax-exempt organization is not complying with the tax laws, you may send information to the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division. You may use Form 13909, Tax-Exempt Organization Complaint (Referral) Form, or send the information in letter format, and attach any supporting documentation for this purpose. Form 13909PDF, or complaint letter, can be submitted one of the following ways:

  • Email to [email protected]
  • Mail to TEGE Referrals Group, 1100 Commerce Street, MC 4910 DAL, Dallas, TX 75242, or
  • Fax to 214-413-5415

In addition to oversight by the IRS, tax-exempt organizations are subject to oversight by State charity regulators and State tax agencies. You may also want to send a copy of the referral you send to us to your state tax agency.

Acknowledgement and Disclosure Prohibition

After a referral is made, we will mail an acknowledgement letter to all non-IRS sources making a referral, unless it was made anonymously. To receive an acknowledgement letter, you must provide your name and return address. We are unable to send acknowledgement letters through e-mail.

We will keep your identify confidential when you make a referral. You won’t receive a status or progress update due to tax return confidentiality under Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code.

According to the IRS, IRS Form 13909 is available for anyone to formally disclose suspicion that a tax-exempt organization (such as a church) is “not complying” with tax laws. The form could be submitted via email, fax, or post; the IRS pledges to keep the identities of complainants confidential.

However, complainants retain the option to request an “acknowledgment letter” from the IRS (unavailable via email), verifying receipt of a complaint. A FARK.com user located a copy of a May 16 2022 complaint submitted to the IRS against Locke. That complaint was not submitted by TikTok, or at least it did not appear to be. It was signed by Ian Smith, Staff Attorney, Americans United for Separation of Church and State,” and it read in part:

Internal Revenue Service
Exempt Organizations Examinations
1111 Constitution Ave, N.W.,
Washington, D.C. 20224

Re: Partisan politicking at Tennessee church

To whom it may concern:

We are writing on behalf of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to ask the IRS to investigate a likely violation of the federal law barring tax-exempt nonprofit entities from intervening in partisan elections, commonly known as the “Johnson Amendment.” On Sunday May 15, 2022, Pastor Greg Locke of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, told his congregants from the church stage that they could not vote for Democrats.

As you know, 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches, are tax-exempt, but a requirement of that tax-exemption is that they not “[d]irectly or indirectly [ ] participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” 26 CFR § 1.501(c)(3)-1.

Locke said, “You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation” and “If you vote Democrat, I don’t even want you around this church. You can get out.” The sermon can be viewed online1 and here is a transcript of some of the relevant portions:

If you vote Democrat, I don’t even want you around this church. You can get out. You can get out, you demon. You can get out, you baby-butchering, election thief. You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation. I don’t care how mad that makes you. You can get as pissed off as you want to. You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation. . . . You cannot be a Democrat and a Christian. You cannot. Somebody say “Amen.” The rest of you get out. Get out! Get out in the name of Jesus …

Summary

A viral Twitter exchange on a tweet claiming that a pastor in Tennessee, Greg Locke, “just said his church is no longer tax-exempt after TikTok users submitted complaints to the IRS” led to a broader rumor that a new TikTok trend involved reporting churches engaged in political activity to the IRS. The viral tweet was followed with another update clarifying that the initial claim was largely unverifiable.

It is true that the Johnson Amendment prohibits charities and churches claiming 501(3)(c) status from engaging in political activity. It is further true that IRS Form 13909 was available for anyone suspecting 501(3)(c) organizations of violating tax law to submit a complaint via email, mail, or fax. However, no TikTok content was referenced in any iterations of the claim we saw, and we saw no evidence of a TikTok trend to report non-compliant churches to the IRS.