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It’s lobbying, and it’s taxable

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An organization that has been the major opponent of same-sex civil unions in Hawaii is scrambling to maintain its nonprofit status as a charity. The Hawaii Family Forum would improve its credibility by acknowledging its status as a political lobby, advise supporters that their donations are not tax-exempt and pay taxes like their adversary organizations.

Federal tax law requires charities the size of Hawaii Family Forum to limit their lobbying to 20 percent of their expenditures or risk losing their tax-exempt status. However, the forum’s delayed 2009 tax return shows that it spent $125,695 on its effort to change public opinion and directly lobby public officials, and less than $88,000 on other purposes.

In the Internal Revenue Service form’s space for description of program services, the forum listed "community educational events" and "disseminating of educational material." Of course, what may be called "educational" by some people could be regarded by others as political or propagandistic.

The forum has attempted in the past to distinguish between educating and lobbying. The IRS defines lobbying as advocating the adoption or rejection of legislation or urging the public to do the same.

The forum’s website is overwhelmingly political, citing particular legislation, showing links to state and federal legislators and urging members to contact them. In a website message dated Sept. 3, Allen Cardines Jr., the group’s new executive director, says it "is committed to protecting, preserving and strengthening Hawaii’s families. One way that we can improve the future of Hawaii’s families is by voting."

Apparently concerned that the forum could lose its charity status and tax exemption, Francis Oda, the group’s president, said the forum’s "primary focus was on the adoption of children out of the Family Court system" when it was founded in 1998. If so, the forum is clearly digressing from its stated mission of charity. Since 2003, the forum has partnered in lobbying with the Hawaii Catholic Conference on behalf of the Honolulu Diocese.

"They seem to be doing nothing but lobbying," said lawyer Hannah Miyamoto, who filed a complaint with the IRS. Holly Huber, who filed a similar complaint on behalf of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, maintained that the forum has "no charitable programs" and is "100 percent a lobbying organization."

The Hawaii Family Forum regards itself as a virtuous player aimed at leading legislators down the right path. Its gamesmanship with the IRS hardly sends the kind of message to serve that end. It should abandon its attempt to enhance donations by having them continue to be tax exempt, acknowledge itself as a political lobby, and pay Uncle Sam the consequences.


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