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Freedom From Religion Foundation sues IRS for failure to enforce ban on church politicking

Freedom From Religion Foundation sues IRS for failure to enforce ban on church politicking

For the past few years, religious right groups have been encouraging pastors to endorse candidates and political matters from the pulpit during "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." The effort has been spearheaded by the Christian advocacy group, Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund) and actively promoted by groups such as Liberty Counsel.  At least 1,500 pastors reportedly participated in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" this year, on October 7.

The 1954 Johnson Amendment to the tax code enforced by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations, which include charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity, which "pulpit freedom" advocates view as an assault on their religious liberties.  Reuters reported in July that as churches are becoming more political, the IRS is not doing anything about it.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) adds that "A widely circulated Bloomberg news article quoted Russell Renwicks, with the IRS’ Tax-Exempt and Government Entities division, saying the IRS has suspended tax audits of churches. Other sources claim the IRS hasn’t been auditing churches since 2009. (See AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll’s story, “IRS Not Enforcing Rules on Churches and Politics.”) Although an IRS spokesman claimed Renwicks “misspoke,” there appears to be no evidence of IRS inquiries or action in the past three years."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has repeatedly reported to the IRS instances of churches violating the Johnson Amendment, to no avail.  In an August broadcast, Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel acknowledged that nothing is done about these complaints and characterized Americans United and other watchdog groups as "paper tigers."  He characterized  letters sent by Americans United and other groups to the IRS and/or pastors about tax code violations as "disinformation" used to "intimidate pastors into silence."

FFRF is now taking a new approach, announcing on Nov. 14 that it is asking the federal court to enjoin IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman from continuing "a policy of non-enforcement of the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations."  Additionally, FFRF seeks to order Shulman "to authorize a high-ranking official within the IRS to approve and initiate enforcement of the restrictions of §501(c)(3) against churches and religious organizations, including the electioneering restrictions, as required by law."   (See the complaint.)

FFRF attorneys have repeatedly asked the IRS to investigate electioneering by churches.  "This non-enforcement constitutes preferential treatment to churches and religious organizations that is not provided to other tax-exempt organizations, including FFRF," the complaint notes. "Churches and religious organizations obtain a significant benefit as a result of being non-exempt from income taxation, while also being able to preferentially engage in electioneering, which is something secular tax-exempt organizations cannot do."

According to FFRF, the preferential tax exemption involves more than $100 billion annually in tax-free contributions to churches and religious organizations in the United States.

In October, Billy Graham told followers to "vote their Biblical values."  This announcement came on the heels of an appearance by his son, Franklin, on CNN's Piers Morgan's show, where the younger Graham told Morgan that the Grahams had voted for Mitt Romney.  These activities and others culminated into full-page advertisements placed in several newspapers that appeared to endorse Republican presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney and some senators — characterized as "coded messages" by FFRF, which filed a complaint with the IRS concerning the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's alleged political activities.

Quoting FFRF's news release:

In addition to reporting the Graham ministry’s electioneering to the IRS, FFRF has sent letters of complaint to the IRS involving 27 other such violations so far this year. Recent complaints include:

  • Green Bay Bishop David L. Ricken, who wrote an article on diocesan letterhead inserted in all parish bulletins about voting and choosing the president and other offices. Ricken warned that if Catholics vote for a party or candidate who supports abortion rights or marriage equality, “you could be morally ‘complicit’ with these choices which are intrinsically evil. This could put your own soul in jeopardy.” (Read full FFRF letter to IRS.)
  • Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, who, in an April homily, sharply criticized President Obama, referencing the 2012 presidential election, saying Obama was “following a similar path” as Hitler and Stalin. Jenky said “every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences. . .” (Read full FFRF letter to IRS.)
  • Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., who wrote a Nov. 1 article, “Official guidelines for forming a Catholic conscience in the Diocese of Madison,” published in the Catholic Herald, spelling out “non-negotiable” political areas. “No Catholic may, in good conscience, vote for ‘pro-choice’ candidates [or] . . . for candidates who promote ‘same-sex marriage.’ ” (Read full FFRF letter to IRS.)

About D. Beeksma

One of the growing crowd of American "nones" herself, Deborah is a prolific writer who finds religion, spirituality and the impact of belief (and non-belief) on culture inspiring, fascinating and at times, disturbing. She hosts the God Discussion show and handles the site's technical work. Her education and background is in business, ecommerce and law.
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