Atheists sue IRS for failure to monitor church politicking

A First Amendment watchdog group is suing the Internal Revenue Service for failing to challenge the tax-exempt status of churches … Continued

A First Amendment watchdog group is suing the Internal Revenue Service for failing to challenge the tax-exempt status of churches whose pastors engage in partisan politicking from the pulpit.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates total separation of church and state, filed the lawsuit Wednesday (Nov. 14) in U.S. District Court in Western Wisconsin, where the 19,000-member organization is based.

The lawsuit claims that as many as 1,500 pastors engaged in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on Sunday, Oct. 7, when pastors endorsed one or more candidates, which is a violation of IRS rules for non-profit organizations.

IRS rules state that organizations classified as 501 (c) (3) non-profits — a tax-exempt status most churches and other religious institutions claim — cannot participate or intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any political candidate.”

Though the regulation has been in place since 1954, a federal court ruled in 2009 that the IRS no longer had the appropriate staff to investigate places of worship after a reorganization changed who in the agency had the authority to launch investigations.

IRS rules do allow for some nonpartisan activity by religious institutions, including organizing members to vote and speaking out on issues. But endorsing or supporting specific candidates could jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

But a recent Associated Press story reported that the IRS has not challenged any religious organizations on charges of electioneering in the past three years. An IRS spokesperson told the AP that it was “holding any potential church audits in abeyance” until rules on electioneering could be “finalized.”

The lawsuit also challenges the legality of several full-page newspaper advertisements paid for by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, another 501 (c) (3), that exhorted voters to vote along “biblical principles.” The ads ran after Graham met with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and promised to do “all I can” to support his campaign.

FFRF has filed 27 complaints about church electioneering with the IRS this year, including:

— Roman Catholic Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., who wrote an appeal on diocesan letterhead inserted in parish bulletins warning voters that they could “put their own soul in jeopardy” if they voted for a party or candidate that supports same-sex marriage or abortion rights.

— Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., who criticized President Obama in a homily and then exhorted parishioners that “every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences.”

— Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino, who, in an article appearing in the local diocesan newspaper, wrote of “non-negotiable” political issues, and that “No Catholic may, in good conscience, vote for’pro-choice’ candidates (or) … for candidates who promote’same-sex marriage.’”

A similar complaint against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for the electioneering of its members was filed by the Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

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  • ToniJ

    I hope something comes of this. When I found religious organizations that actually completed and posted on their websites a sample ballot showing their constituents who to vote for (Romney, every right-wing nut and right wing amendment/referendum) I was furious of the blatant politicking.

    They broke the rules so they should pay taxes. Period.

  • malbuff

    Partisan groups do this pre-marked ballot stuff all the time, on both sides of the aisle. I received several unsolicited samples myself.

    The IRS is backing off because they know the “Johnson Amendment” to the tax code, on which this entire issue is based, is unconstitutional and likely to be ruled so by the Supreme Court eventually. Why throw away precious resources on a loser?

  • itsthedax

    From the IRS website: “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes. ”

    So, the lawsuit is intended to force the IRS to enforce the law, which has been violated by a number of 501(C) organizations. What’s the problem with that?