The Freedom From Religion Foundation has “loaded the bases,” winning the right to proceed with three historic federal lawsuits that contest preferential treatment of churches and ministers by the Internal Revenue Service.
In addition to receiving a green light Aug. 19 from a federal judge in its significant suit against pulpit electioneering, FFRF, a national state/church watchdog representing nearly 20,000 nonreligious members, has two other cases:
• On Aug. 22, FFRF received a go-ahead from a federal judge in its challenge to force churches to provide the same annual financial accountability to the public and the IRS as required by other 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofits. (See story, below.)
• FFRF awaits a decision by a federal district judge in its challenge of the “parish exemption.” In 1954, Congress passed a law uniquely benefiting “ministers of the gospel,” allowing them to deduct from taxable income any church payment given in the form of a “housing allowance.” (See related article, page 3.)
“These days, winning a court determination that you have standing to take a case is the biggest hurdle to surmount. It’s quite an accomplishment to win that right with all three of our IRS challenges at the district court level,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
FFRF is represented in all three of its IRS lawsuits by Richard L. Bolton of Boardman Law Firm, Madison, Wis.
In its closely watched challenge of church electioneering, FFRF was given standing to proceed by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman of the Western District of Wisconsin. The case will continue to discovery, so that FFRF and the public may learn the facts regarding IRS inaction over church politicking.
The court order came five days after a large, organized coalition of mostly evangelical organizations overtly urged Congress to repeal prohibitions against partisan pulpit politicking.
FFRF filed the suit in December 2012 over the IRS’ lack of enforcement of its own policies, which prohibit churches, or any 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, from endorsing from the pulpit or engaging in politicking. As Adelman observed, “A condition of this exemption is that the entity not participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.”
Adelman added, “If it is true that the IRS has a policy of not enforcing the prohibition on campaigning against religious organizations, then the IRS is conferring a benefit on religious organizations (the ability to participate in political campaigns) that it denies to all other 501(c)(3) organizations, including the Foundation.”
The IRS claimed FFRF lacked standing to sue and that the U.S. is barred by sovereign immunity from being sued. Adelman rejected both claims, noting FFRF itself is a 501(c)(3) and is alleging “disparate treatment,” and that “it is the IRS’s own policy that is causing the alleged unequal treatment.” FFRF is not asserting a “generalized grievance but rather its own, particularized interest in receiving equal treatment.”
Adelman noted that “the IRS does not dispute that this court has the raw power to issue an injunction preventing the IRS from continuing to follow a policy of favoritism toward religious organizations.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor blasted the recommendations of a coalition of churches and religious groups released on Aug. 14 urging Congress to permit ministers to endorse from the pulpit. The coalition is closely aligned to the ironically named Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which is “committed to helping Christ-centered organizations,” and now, it appears, to their lack of financial accountability.
Participating members include those connected to the usual theocratic groups, including the Liberty Counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian Legal Society, Campus Crusade for Christ and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with a few token non-Christian groups thrown in.
“If churches were allowed, despite their privileged tax-exempt status, to endorse candidates and engage in partisan politicking, the result would make Citizens United look like child’s play,” Gaylor added.
“If these churches, which are accountable to no one in government yet get so many favors,— are allowed to engage in tax-exempt politicking, it would be the ruination of our secular republic.”
Read more about FFRF v. IRS: