Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has won a major victory: compelling the Internal Revenue Service to resume doing its job by policing tax-exempt churches that engage in illegal electioneering. 

U.S. District Judge Lynn S. Adelman, Milwaukee, this week issued an order approving the joint motion for dismissal between between FFRF and the IRS. FFRF agreed to voluntarily dismiss its closely-watched federal lawsuit against the IRS after being given evidence that the IRS has authorized procedures and “signature authority” to resume initiating church tax investigations and examinations. 

FFRF and the IRS filed an agreement on July 17 to dismiss the lawsuit voluntarily, following communications from the IRS that it no longer has a policy of non-enforcement against churches. Adelman’s decision and order agreed that FFRF may voluntarily dismiss its lawsuit “without prejudice,” meaning FFRF can renew the lawsuit if the IRS reverts to its previous inaction. 

This hands a firm defeat to an obscure Milwaukee-area church, Holy Cross Anglican Church, which was intervening in the case with the help of the Becket Fund, insisting it had a “free speech” right to engage in partisan politicking from the pulpit without losing its tax exempt status. The judge explicitly denied the church’s motion to dismiss the case “with prejudice,” meaning FFRF would have been handicapped in refiling the case, should policies change. 

“Our victory ensures that churches are not being singled out for preferential treatment as they were — with the IRS turning a blind eye to such events as the annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal group, is behind that campaign to encourage churches to violate the law. ADF has called again on churches and their ministers this year to endorse from the pulpit on Oct. 5, in defiance of IRS provisions that bar any 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity, not just churches, from politicking. 

“Contrary to the hysterical disinformation machine that is Fox News Network, and the scaremongering claims of religious zealots such as Tony Perkins and ADF, churches are not, as a result of our settlement, being selectively targeted by the IRS for investigations. The opposite was true, as our lawsuit showed. The IRS was selectively not enforcing the law when it came to churches, and now the IRS will go back to enforcing the law even-handedly.” 

Added FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, “Our legal action has ensured that churches cannot act as unaccountable Political Action Committees using tax-exempt dollars to influence the outcome of elections.” 

Currently, the Congressional probe of the IRS has put all investigations on hold, but FFRF could refile the suit if IRS provisions are not enforced in the future against rogue political churches. 

FFRF, a state/church watchdog and the nation’s largest freethought association, now topping 21,000 members, is also suing the IRS over the housing allowance exclusion uniquely benefiting ministers of the gospel, with oral arguments set for early September before the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Read more about that case here. FFRF also has a case in federal district court challenging the exclusion of churches from the same transparent reporting requirements all other 501(c)(3) groups must follow to retain tax exemption. 

View FFRF’s July 31 press update for details and links to all other relevant documents.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has joined a coalition supporting the Access to Contraception for Women Servicemembers and Dependents Act of 2014 introduced Aug 1 by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. The bill has 14 Senate co-sponsors.

FFRF, a state-church watchdog and equal-rights advocate based in Madison, Wis. (with more than 21,000 members nationwide) and more than 30 other groups have signed a July 30 letter to Shaheen supporting her bill. Women make up about 16 percent of the military.

"This bill would ensure that confidential, comprehensive and medically accurate family-planning counseling becomes a guaranteed health service for servicewomen, and is offered by medical providers that have the most up-to-date, evidenced-based information regarding the full range of contraceptive methods available," the letter notes.

It also requires TRICARE (Defense Department-sponsored health insurance) to offer coverage of all FDA-approved methods of contraception with no cost-sharing. That would give the nearly 5 million women eligible for TRICARE the same coverage as other federal employees and those with private insurance.

The bill would also improve servicewomen’s access to emergency contraception in two ways: (1) by codifying Defense Department regulations that military treatment facilities offer survivors of sexual assault information on emergency contraception; (2) requires military treatment facilities to sexual assault survivors emergency contraception upon her request. 

About one-fourth of FFRF's membership is made up of active or retired veterans.

"For far too long, religiously motivated people opposed to reproductive choice have denied equal-access birth control for women in the military," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "This bill will ensure that they receive basic reproductive health care."

A fact sheet on the bill is here

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Internal Revenue Service are poised to resolve FFRF’s closely-watched federal lawsuit challenging the IRS’s non-enforcement of anti-electioneering restrictions by tax-exempt churches. The expected settlement would be a major coup for FFRF, a state/church watchdog and the nation’s largest freethought association, now topping 21,000 members. 

FFRF and the IRS filed an agreement on July 17 to dismiss the lawsuit voluntarily, following communications from the IRS that it no longer has a policy of non-enforcement against churches. The settlement would allow FFRF to voluntarily dismiss its lawsuit “without prejudice,” meaning FFRF can renew the lawsuit if the IRS reverts to its previous inaction. As of press time, District Judge Lynn S. Adelman, of Milwaukee, had not yet ruled on the agreement. 

However, the agreement is being disputed by an obscure Milwaukee-area church, Holy Cross Anglican Church, which is intervening in the case and is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. 

“We’re proud that FFRF’s litigation should ensure that the IRS will now resume enforcing the law, and go after churches which abuse their tax-exempt privilege by attempting to illegally influence the outcome of elections. Otherwise, churches will become unaccountable PACs, congregations could turn into political wards, and donations to the collection box could be used for political purposes. FFRF’s litigation will help safeguard our democratic election process,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. 

FFRF filed suit against the IRS shortly after the presidential election in 2012, based on the agency’s reported moratorium on enforcing the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations. No 501(c)(3) entity, including churches, may retain tax-exemption if it endorses political candidates. 

Yet the IRS had no procedure in place to initiate churches examinations, after a Minnesota district court invalidated the IRS’ prior procedure in 2009. Church groups began to notoriously and openly engage in politicking from the pulpit, including at annual organized events to flout the law known as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” An IRS official publicly reported in 2012 that the IRS had an on-going moratorium on making church tax examinations, in spite of flagrant and public electioneering by churches and religious organizations. 

On June 16, a year and a half after first filing suit, FFRF received its first information from the IRS indicating it no longer has a policy of non-enforcement against churches. FFRF’s counsel, Richard L. Bolton, also discussed the policy with the Department of Justice, and on June 27, FFRF was apprised that the IRS has a procedure in place for “signature authority” to initiate church tax investigations or examinations. 

Complicating the practical effect for now of the settlement is the global moratorium currently in place on IRS investigations of any tax-exempt entities, church or otherwise, while Congress conducts its probe on IRS tea party policies. 

The intervening church filed a motion insisting: “FFRF should not be in a position to drop this lawsuit and file an identical lawsuit (and again put the Church’s interests in jeopardy) a week, a month, or a year in the future.” The Becket Fund has asked the federal court to dismiss the suit “with prejudice,” so that FFRF could not renew its challenge if the IRS reverts to taking no action on violative churches. 

On July 29, FFRF filed a response making it clear FFRF will only dismiss voluntarily if “our agreement has teeth,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, “to ensure that we can resume the suit if anti-electioneering provisions are not enforced in the future against rogue political churches.” 

Alliance Defending Freedom, which is the force behind Pulpit Freedom Sunday, and which has proclaimed Oct. 5 Pulpit Freedom Sunday this year, also got into the act, filing a Freedom of Information Act request after learning of the July 17 agreement, insinuating that the IRS was withholding information. 

Contrary to the intervenor’s contention, “there is nothing strange, collusive, or concealed here,” noted the IRS in a July 22 motion filed with the court.

Despite efforts by the local chapter of Metroplex Atheists to deliver secular invocations, the Rowlett City Council in Texas has censored its request for equal time, maintaining that only eligible clergy members may host governmental prayer. 

The May 5 Supreme Court ruling in Greece v. Galloway, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, permitted religious invocations at government provided “that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation” 134 S. Ct. at 1816.

Thus far, the Town of Greece, N.Y., site of the ruling, has adopted a more inclusive policy, inviting a Jewish layperson, a Wiccan priestess, and on July 15, an atheist, FFRF Life Member Dan Courtney, to deliver the opening invocation at its town meetings. Conversely — despite a joint letter to the Rowlett City Council on July 24 (following a June 24 letter) from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State — the Town of Rowlett caters to its Christian majority, excluding non-Christians and nonbelievers from the equal opportunity required by law. 

As Justice Elena Kagan noted in her dissent, "When citizens of all faiths come to speak to each other and their elected representatives in a legislative session, the government must take especial care to ensure that the prayers they hear will seek to include, rather than serve to divide." 

We would rather see the pernicious influence of religion in the governmental sphere end entirely. But as long as divisive religious speech continues to be inserted into otherwise inclusive and secular community meetings, nonreligious invocations must be accorded equal time. Please help us send the message to Rowlett City Council that there are community members — family, coworkers, friends — who are among the 20% of the U.S. population today that identifies as nonreligious. Let them know we have voices, and that we plan to use them. 

CONTACT

Please phone or email the Rowlett City Council now! 

Main contact: 
Todd W. Gottel, Mayor —  
City Secretary’s Office  

(972) 412-6115 

If you have time, cc the City Council members below: 

  • Michael Gallops, Mayor Pro Tem, City Councilmember Place 6 —  
  • Robbert van Bloemendaal — City Councilmember Place 1 —  
  • Tammy Dana-Bashian — City Councilmember Place 2 —  
  • Carl Pankratz, Deputy Mayor Pro Tem, City Councilmember Place 3 —  
  • Debby Bobbitt, City Councilmember Place 4 —  
  • Rick Sheffield, City Councilmember Place 5 —  

If you live in the Rowlett area, you may wish to attend or speak out during the public comment period. Rowlett City Council meetings are on the first and third Tuesdays of every month; the next is Tuesday August 5, at the City Hall Municipal Building, located at 4000 Main St., Rowlett, TX 75088. 

If you live in another community in which there is governmental prayer, consider fighting back by entering FFRF’s Nothing Fails Like Prayer contest

It’s also helpful to write a letter to your local newspaper on why prayer in government is inappropriate. 

TALKING POINTS

Use your own language or feel free to use any of the language below. If you live in Rowlett, please be sure to identify yourself as a Rowlett resident. 

As a Texas citizen, I demand that government officials make room for religious diversity, including opportunities for secular voices to be heard. Since Rowlett City Council meetings currently open with religious invocations, it’s improper and discriminatory to muzzle nonreligious individuals who seek the opportunity to give opening remarks. Rowlett city council has indicated that you intend “to adopt a policy that does not proselytize or advance any faith, or show any purposeful preference of one religious view to the exclusion of others,” yet you only permit members of the clergy to deliver invocations. Featuring only prayers that invoke “Jesus” and Christian values shows a “purposeful preference” and makes those of us who do not believe in a monotheistic god or any gods feel like second-class citizens in our own community. 

We stand with Metroplex Atheists and affirm its right to deliver a secular invocation during an upcoming council meeting. Please grant its request, and please revise your policy so as not to exclude the non-Christian and nonreligious members of your community. 

Thank you for taking action now!

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