WASHINGTON — A Christian legal organization has filed a federal lawsuit against the IRS for failing to release documents surrounding a purported settlement it reached with a prominent atheist organization surrounding the enforcement of tax rules for churches.
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,” the organization further explains. “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 order in 2009, but did not follow through. In settling with FFRF last year, the government agency said that it had adopted procedures in regard to church investigations and non-profit groups in general. Therefore, the court dismissed the lawsuit as per FFRF’s request as its understanding with the IRS was deemed sufficient.
“The IRS has now resolved the signature authority issue necessary to initiate church examinations,” FFRF explained. “The IRS also has adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations.”
But the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said that the public deserves to know what procedures the IRS has set in place as to who will be investigated and how. It filed a Freedom of Information Act request last August to obtain the details of the IRS agreement with FFRF.
As the IRS has not produced the requested documents, ADF has now filed a federal lawsuit via Judicial Watch to obtain the information.
“The IRS’s delays make no sense because we only asked for the same information that it already provided to Freedom From Religion Foundation,” ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “The IRS has forced us to file this lawsuit just so we can obtain what the agency is already legally obligated to produce.”
“Churches don’t have to give up their freedom of speech to remain tax-exempt any more than they have to give up their protection against illegal search and seizure,” added Senior Counsel Erik Stanley. “Nonetheless, behind closed doors, the IRS appears to be sharpening its procedures for monitoring sermons and performing additional audits. It should stop playing games with the American people, who can only assume by this continual and illegitimate secrecy that the agency has something to hide.”
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.”
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.