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.