WASHINGTON — A prominent Christian legal organization has requested that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) hand over documents surrounding its recent settlement with an atheist activist organization surrounding the investigation of churches that engage in “electioneering.”
As previously reported, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, sued the IRS in 2012, asserting that many non-profit religious organizations have been “blatantly and deliberately flaunting … electioneering restrictions,” but the government has not enforced its rules pertaining to the matter.
According to the IRS website, “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited 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. The prohibition applies to all campaigns including campaigns at the federal, state and local level. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
However, while candidates may not be promoted or opposed, churches and ministries that obtain 501 (c)(3) status may speak out on political and moral issues and/or generally encourage others to vote.
In its lawsuit against the IRS, FFRF cited a number of specific complaints regarding those that it believes violated these rules. The atheist organization said that it filed 27 complaints with the IRS and alleged that none were ever investigated. FFRF then asked the court to force IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman “to authorize a high-ranking official within the IRS to approve and initiate enforcement of the restrictions of §501(c)(3) against churches and religious organizations, including the electioneering restrictions, as required by law.”
According to reports, the IRS had received a similar 0rder in 2009, but did not follow through. Now, in settling with FFRF, the government agency says that it has adopted procedures in regard to church investigations and non-profit groups in general. Therefore, on Friday, the court dismissed the lawsuit as per FFRF’s request as its understanding with the IRS was deemed sufficient.
“Our legal action has ensured that churches cannot act as unaccountable Political Action Committees using tax-exempt dollars to influence the outcome of elections,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
But the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) says that the public deserves to know what procedures the IRS has set in place as to who will be investigated and how.
“Secrecy breeds mistrust, and the IRS should know this in light of its recent scandals involving the investigation of conservative groups,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “We are asking the IRS to disclose the new protocols and procedures it apparently adopted for determining whether to investigate churches. What it intends to do to churches must be brought into the light of day.”
It filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the details of the IRS agreement with FFRF.
ADF says that it would like to see the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 regulation introduced by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson that serves as the basis for the investigation, struck down in the courts. While the amendment does not specifically prohibit speech on topics that may be construed as being “political,” such as homosexuality and abortion, ADF contends that it has often been interpreted that way by the IRS. It asserts that churches have refrained from speaking on certain societal topics out of a fear of losing their tax exempt status, and launched the Speak Up Movement in 2008 to urge churches to take a stand.
“When the church is silent, the culture suffers,” Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley said. “The church is integral to the moral stability of a society. Every day that pastors are intimidated into silence on issues like life, liberty, the family and marriage is another day the cultural erosion continues unchecked.”
According to the documentary A Defense of God’s Law, the nation’s decision to allow tax exemption for churches was grounded in Scripture. It cites Ezra 7:24, which outlines, “Also we certify you, that touching any of the priests and Levites, singers, porters, Nethinims, or ministers of this house of God, it shall not be lawful to impose toll, tribute, or custom, upon them.”
But some churches and non-profit organizations refuse to apply for 501 (c)(3) status because they would rather pay taxes than forfeit their freedom of speech.
“A church that voluntarily initiates an application to the state for corporate status expects ‘limited liability’ and ‘tax exemption.’ It in turn owes to the state its right to exist and prosper,” stated Art Fisher of Reformed Bible Church in Central Islip, New York, who has not applied for tax-exempt status for his congregation. “It is obvious that its legal status and that of its of its ‘flock’ has been drastically altered.”
“Why are the churches of today almost always found to be incorporated? Why would the churches elect to place themselves under such jurisdiction—to find regulation under governmental franchise preferable to their own Divine Law?” he asked. “Are they not in fact serving two masters?”