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Separation of Church and State Should not Separate Donors from Information

   Mar 21, 2012

"It is far too easy for a dishonest individual to operate a religious charity that steals our money and damages our spirituality."

–Daniel Borochoff, AIP President

Donors beware! Charities that claim a religious aspect to their mission may not be legally required to publicly disclose how they are spending your donations. Religious charities that distribute solicitations that are very similar to secular charities may be off the radar screen of governmental agencies that regulate charities. This is why it is especially risky to send a contribution to an unfamiliar religious charity.

The lapse of legally mandated accountability for religious organizations is particularly unfortunate since these groups account for $75 billion or about half of all U.S. giving in 1997, according to Giving USA. Churches, integrated auxiliaries and related charitable entities are not legally required to register or file annual information with the IRS or with state charity regulators. Freestanding religious organizations that do not fall under the umbrella of a church’s IRS filing exemption are required to register and file information annually with the IRS though most state charity regulatory offices do not require them to do so. 

AIP strongly believes that all nonprofit organizations that solicit funds from the public, including religious organizations, should disclose their governing board members and financial statements to the public. Congress would greatly assist informed giving to charity if it passed a law that would require all religious and secular nonprofits with incomes over $25,000 that seek tax-deductible contributions from the public to publicly disclose its finances and governing board. AIP believes that such a law would not weaken our First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion but would help to strengthen them by improving the credibility of religious organizations.

Most major religious charities perform valuable public services and make an effort to be accountable to the public. The religious charities listed in your Charity Rating Guide typically have ecumenical programs, such as international relief, human rights, housing, etc., that you may wish to support regardless of your religious affiliation.

Checking Out Evangelical Christian Ministries
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) is an association of 900 TV and radio ministries, Christian colleges, rescue missions, churches and other religious nonprofits. All ECFA members are required “to enunciate, maintain, and manifest a code of financial accountability, ethics, and reporting which is consistent with enlightened and responsible Christian faith and practice.”

Before donating to an Evangelical Christian organization, it is a good idea to find out if it is a member in good standing with the ECFA (800-3BEWISE). Many ministries that are not members of ECFA may also meet ECFA standards.