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Lauryn Seering

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Internal Revenue Service reached an agreement today (July 17) that resolves for the time being an ongoing federal lawsuit over non-enforcement of restrictions on political activity by tax-exempt religious organizations and churches. 

“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. 

“Of course, we have the complication of a moratorium currently in place on any IRS investigations of any tax-exempt entities, church or otherwise, due to the congressional probe of the IRS. FFRF could refile the suit if anti-electioneering provisions are not enforced in the future against rogue political churches.” 

FFRF filed suit against the IRS shortly after the presidential election in 2012, based on the agency’s reported enforcement moratorium, as evidenced by open and notorious politicking by churches. Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in fact, has become an annual occasion for churches to violate the law with impunity. The IRS, meanwhile, admittedly was not enforcing the restrictions against churches. A prior lawsuit in 2009 required the IRS to designate an appropriate high-ranking official to initiate church tax examinations, but it had apparently failed to do so. 

The IRS has now resolved the signature authority issue necessary to initiate church examinations. The IRS also has adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations. While the IRS retains “prosecutorial” discretion with regard to any individual case, the IRS no longer has a blanket policy or practice of non-enforcement of political activity restrictions as to churches. 

In addition to FFRF’s lawsuit, IRS enforcement procedures with respect to political activity by tax-exempt organizations have been the subject of intense scrutiny by Congress. As a result, the IRS is reviewing and implementing safeguards to ensure evenhanded enforcement across the board with respect to all tax exempt organizations. 

Until that process is completed, the IRS has suspended all examinations of tax-exempt organizations for alleged political activities. The current suspension, however, is not limited to church tax inquiries. 

Until the IRS has satisfied congressional overseers that objective procedures are firmly in place with regard to political activities by all tax-exempt organizations, the judge in FFRF’s pending suit would not currently be able to order any immediate or effective relief. 

As a result, FFRF has reached a point where no further immediate changes realistically can be accomplished through continued litigation. The dismissal of the pending action, however, is expected to be without prejudice, which means that further legal action by FFRF to enforce anti-electioneering provisions is not precluded in the future if necessary.

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Greg Lipper, Linda Stephens, Dan Courtney, Susan Galloway, David Niose, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Ron Lindsay. 

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor was on hand, along with representatives of several other national secular groups, to witness the first invocation by an atheist delivered at a town board meeting in Greece, N.Y.

Dan Courtney, a local activist and a Lifetime member of FFRF, asked for permission to deliver a secular invocation after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Greece’s prayer practice of inviting Christian clergy to open governmental meetings. The high court by a 5-4 vote ruled against the rights of Greece plaintiffs Linda Stephens, an atheist who is also a Lifetime member of FFRF, and Susan Galloway, who is culturally Jewish. But as Courtney points out, the decision had “an important caveat: The government could no longer excude potential speakers on the basis of religion,” and must now allow nonbelievers and others a chance at the podium. 

Courtney delivered his short invocation shortly after 6 p.m. yesterday (July 15), with almost as many members of the media in attendance as the regular audience. Immediately after, he called a press conference with remarks by Ron Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry; David Niose, past president of the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America; Greg Lipper, senior ligitation counsel for Amiercans United for Separation of Church and State, and Gaylor. Courtney will also be a guest on this Saturday’s Freethought Radio, FFRF’s weekly radio broadcast and podcast. 

Below are Courtney’s remarks, followed by Gaylor’s. 

Dan Courtney’s secular invocation 

Town of Greece, N.Y., July 15, 2014 

Thank you, members of the town board. Thank you, Supervisor Rielich, for allowing me to offer the invocation.

Freethinkers, atheists, non-believers, whatever label you wish, this group comprises a significant part of our population. I am honored to be providing an invocation on their behalf, and on behalf of all the citizens of the town of Greece.

On July 4th, 1776, the 56 men, who pledged their lives to the document that changed the course of history, agreed to the central tenet that, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” 

More than 238 years later this central premise still echoes, however faintly, from the town hall to the white columned halls of Washington. 

Yet this premise, this foundation necessary for a free and flourishing society, is today, more than ever, under assault. 

This central pillar of a free society; this notion that is deeply heretical to authoritarian culture, proclaims that it is from the people that moral authority is derived. 

It is that within us, the citizens, that knowledge and wisdom must emerge. 

The preservation of this premise does not come from accepting the status quo, but by asserting our rights and exercising our duties.

That this premise still endures testifies to its truth, and we can say with confidence that it is in seeking the counsel of our conscience that we find the beginning of wisdom. 

It is in the exercise of our duty as citizens that we find the beginning of knowledge. 

We, as citizens, the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega of our destiny are not, as the great philosopher Immanuel Kant warned, mere means to the ends of another, but we are ends in ourselves.

This basic premise, this profound idea, guides us such that we need not kneel to any king, and we need not bow to any tyrant.

So I ask all officials present here, as guarantors of our founder’s revolutionary proclamation, to heed the counsel of the governed; to seek the wisdom of all citizens, and to honor the enlightened wisdom and the profound courage of those 56 brave men. Thank you.

* * * 

“Nothing fails like prayer” 

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor’s remarks after historic invocation Town of Greece, N.Y., July 15, 2015 

Thirty-eight years ago, when I was a college student, my mother and I became aware that the city council in my hometown of Madison, Wis., was scheduling governmental prayer — inviting local Christian clergymen to open governmental meetings. 

We were truly shocked. So we did what Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway did here in Greece — we addressed our city council, asking them to respect the views of all citizens by dropping prayers and religious ritual from governmental meetings. Our request not only stopped common council prayers in Madison within the year, but our actions led to the creation of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. We have since grown from the original two of us to more than 21,000 freethinkers nationwide. FFRF works to keep religion out of government, and to represent the views of those of us who are personally free from religion. We proudly count among our Lifetime Members Linda Stephens and Dan Courtney. In the past 38 years, governmental prayer remains one of the most common complaints FFRF receives over state/church entanglements. 

Today about 20% of the U.S. population identifies as nonreligious, so that’s a lot of people for local governmental bodies to exclude and offend by hosting prayers. Religion is divisive. Government should strive to stay above the religious fray. We believe our Constitution, itself a godless and entirely secular document, whose only references to religion are exclusionary, requires government to be neutral. It is not the government’s business to proselytize, or promote faith, or to provide a podium for religious viewpoints at governmental meetings. 

Governmental prayers are unnecessary, embarrassing and exclusionary. Citizens should not be made to feel offended, excluded, or like political outsiders because the government they support with their taxes imposes religious ritual at official events. Citizens should not have to show deference or obeisance to a religious ritual they disbelieve in, in order to attend or participate in their local government. Our message to pious politicians is to get off your knees and get to work. If the framers of our Constitution did not feel it necessary to pray over the adoption of our Constitution, we fail to understand why city government needs to pray over liquor licenses, sewers or variances. 

The answers for humanity’s questions will never come from above. The unanswered prayers could fill the universe. Our cemeteries are filled with people who prayed to live. Wishful thinking cannot suspend the natural laws of the universe. FFRF’s motto is “Nothing Fails Like Prayer,” and that’s the name of our new contest to encourage and recognize secular activists around the country, such as Dan Courtney, to assert their rights, under the Greece Supreme Court ruling, to counter religion in government with secular invocations. 

Way back in 1890, a state supreme court, ruling to remove bible recitations from public schools, wisely warned about the dangers of religion in government: 

"There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed.” – Supreme Court of Wisconsin, Weiss v. District Board, March 18, 1890

I’m proud of Linda Stephens, Susan Galloway and Dan Courtney, and thank them for their brave and patriotic actions to safeguard the constitutional separation between state and church. 

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