IRS Settles with Atheists, Agrees to Crack Down on Churches for ‘Electioneering’

Church Polling Credit Kushal OneWASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has reached a settlement with a prominent atheist organization, agreeing to crack down churches and religious groups for infringements of its prohibition against  ‘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.

“Under federal tax law, section 501(c)(3) organizations may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office,” the IRS outlines. “However, section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate.”

In its lawsuit against the IRS, the Freedom from Religion Foundation 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, it has adopted procedures in regard to church investigations and non-profit groups in general.

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While the investigations currently are on hold as the IRS is investigated itself by Congress, FFRF states that it is happy with the settlement.

“This is a victory, and we’re pleased with this development in which the IRS has proved to our satisfaction that it now has in place a protocol to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

However, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal group that organizes “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” each year to challenge the regulation, says that the IRS code at issue is unconstitutional.

“For almost the first 200 years of America’s history, pastors frequently spoke out with great boldness about the great moral and social issues of the day and about the candidates running for office,” ADF outlines on its Speak Up Movement website. “Yet today, the voice of the Church has been silenced by the Johnson Amendment – an unjust and unconstitutional law.”

“Pastors should decide what they preach from the pulpit, not the IRS,” added Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “It’s outrageous for pastors and churches to be threatened or punished by the government for applying Biblical teachings to all areas of life, including candidates and elections. The question is, ‘Who should decide the content of sermons: pastors or the IRS?’”

Photo: Kushal One

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  • Brenna

    If the churches want to give up it’s tax exempt status then it can say whatever it wants up there at the pulpit. If they are going to take advantage of government tax breaks then then need to live by the government rules. Simple as that!

    • JC

      Not so, from a legal and constitutional standpoint. The tax status of churches, as ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court is not in any way shape or form linked to speech. The tax status ruling was based on the idea of the court that in order to meet the requirement of religious freedom churches could not be taxed because the government controls what it is able to tax. So that ruling was not a condition that churches not be taxed as long as they sacrifice the constitutional right to free speech but rather in order to have the constitutional right to religious freedom they must not be taxed. Laws, rules and regulations can be made all the day long, but if they do not meet the criteria laid out by the constitution then they are invalid, such as the IRS limiting free speech in return for a tax free status. Our constitutional rights are not for sale, nor can they be traded. Churches can be tax free in order to preserve religious freedom from government ownership and intervention and enjoy free speech, according to the constitution.

      • JKT

        Actually very much so from a TAX standpoint. The tax exemption is for RELIGIOUS entities. As soon as they get political they are no longer such an entity. It’s quite straightforward. You do not get to eat your cake and have it too. Choose whether you are political or religious.

        • Ken

          I suggest you actually study on that Supreme Court ruling before speaking on the topic, son.

  • WorldGoneCrazy

    If churches could not brazenly cheer for a politician, then the Abortion & Poverty President would never have been elected. This would be OK, if it were applied evenly, which the IRS has proven it cannot, with its latest scandal: EmailGate. “… Not a smidgen of corruption…”

    On the other hand, if revocation of the tax exemption closed down all of the apostate churches, then I just might be for that. 🙂

  • Edith S.

    If you do not render unto Caesar, you don’t get to help elect Caesar.

  • W.Reese

    Why should churches get to campaign on charitable contributions? If they feel so strongly about a candidate, pay taxes and preach away. If the Red Cross and Planned Parenthood can’t support campaigns, then neither can churches, period.