The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which was at the center of a high-profile lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service over illegal church electioneering, warned this week that "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" on Oct. 5 deliberately seeks to incite church pastors into flouting the law.
All 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including churches, are prohibited from engaging in partisan politicking in exchange for the privilege of tax exemption. FFRF's federal lawsuit charged that political violations by churches were being selectively ignored. FFRF, a state/church watchdog with more than 21,000 nonreligious members, took the IRS to court in November 2012. After being given assurances this summer that the IRS has authorized procedures and "signature authority" to resume initiating church tax investigations and examinations, FFRF agreed to drop its suit.
FFRF criticized the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is behind Pulpit Freedom Sunday, for inciting illegal acts and for treating church pastors like pawns.
ADF reported revenue of more than $50 million last year.
ADF's FAQ on Pulpit Freedom Sunday says ADF is "actively seeking to represent churches or pastors who are under investigation by the IRS . . . by preaching Scriptural Truth in a way that expresses for — or opposition to — political candidates."
While claiming its strategy is to file "tactical lawsuits" against the IRS, ADF hasn't filed any such suits since declaring "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" in 2008.
"Churches and their pastors are not above the law. Ministers who claim to be moral leaders should realize it's not only illegal for tax-exempt groups to endorse political candidates, it's unethical. It's an abuse of the public trust," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-founder.
"Rogue pastors who endorse from tax-exempt pulpits are playing dirty pool. Such an abuse creates an unfair election advantage. Donations to politicians are not tax-deductible, but donations to churches are. Imagine if tax-exempt churches — which don't have to file financial returns with the government like all other 501(c)(3) groups must — were allowed to openly engage in partisan politics? Church congregations could become political machines, and political donations could be 'money laundered' through tax-deductible church contributions," Gaylor warned.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker added, "Pastors are free to endorse from the pulpit, but then their churches need to give up their tax exemption."
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman's order granting the joint motion for dismissal by FFRF and the IRS left open FFRF's ability to renew its lawsuit if the IRS reverts to previous inaction.
See FFRF 's action alert by Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert for more details, including how to report a violation.