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.