Athe­ists sue IRS over ‘Pul­pit Free­dom Sun­day’ in­ac­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY KEELY BRAZIL

An athe­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion is su­ing the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice for fail­ing to take ac­tion against churches that the group says have vi­o­lated the tax code for non­prof­its by en­gag­ing in pol­i­tics.

The Free­dom From Re­li­gion Foun­da­tion, a watch­dog group based in Madi­son, Wis., filed a fed­eral law­suit last week that cited the Oct. 7 ac­tions of 1,600 pas­tors who vi­o­lated the tax code on “Pul­pit Free­dom Sun­day” — a na­tion­wide dis­play of free speech. Af­ter weeks of si­lence from the IRS, the Free­dom From Re­li­gion Foun­da­tion took the mat­ter to court.

“This looks like the only way to get some ac­tion out of the IRS,” said An­nie Lau­rie Gay­lor, co-pres­i­dent of the foun­da­tion.

She said the foun­da­tion has writ­ten to the IRS about the is­sue for years, but Pul­pit Free­dom Sun­day was the last straw.

“The tip­ping point would have been the brag­gado­cio of [1,600] pas­tors claim­ing they en­dorsed from the pul­pit. The num­ber of com­plaints we’ve re­ceived has been es­ca­lat­ing, and we have no ex­pla­na­tion from the IRS. This is our way of find­ing out what is go­ing on.”

The IRS me­dia re­la­tions of­fice de­clined to com­ment, say­ing it does not com­ment on court cases.

Erik Stan­ley, le­gal coun­sel for the Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom, said a law­suit is ex­actly what his group was look­ing for when it launched the Pul­pit Free­dom Sun­day ini­tia­tive in 2008 to chal­lenge the John­son Amend­ment, the part of the tax code that re­quires non­profit groups not to en­gage in po­lit­i­cal speech as a con­di­tion of that sta­tus.

Still, he doesn’t think this par­tic­u­lar case will go far.

“I think the law­suit it­self re­ally bor­ders on friv­o­lous. I don’t know how the FFRF can claim they’ve been harmed by the IRS’ re­fusal to en­force the John­son Amend­ment,” Mr. Stan­ley said. “But, on the chance it does, then we will seek to pro­tect those churches.”

The com­plaint from the Free­dom From Re­li­gion Foun­da­tion says churches are get­ting “pref­er­en­tial treat­ment” over other non­prof­its, in­clud­ing the foun­da­tion it­self. The group pointed to other ex­am­ples of po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment from reli­gious groups, such as full-page po­lit­i­cal news­pa­per ads placed by the Billy Gra­ham Evan­ge­lis­tic As­so­ci­a­tion.

If al­lowed to ig­nore the ban, Ms. Gay­lor said, churches may be­come fun­nels for tax-de­ductible, un­re­ported cam­paign money.

“If churches are al­lowed to keep their tax-ex­empt sta­tus and elec­tion­eer, it will be the down­fall of our repub­lic,” she said. “It isn’t just the power of the pas­tor; it’s the im­pli­ca­tion of the whole sys­tem.”

The Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom started Pul­pit Free­dom Sun­day in or­der to pro­voke a re­sponse from the IRS. The ini­tia­tive en­cour­aged pas­tors to make can­di­date endorsements from the pul­pit, record their ser­mons and send the tapes to the IRS. Churches can and of­ten do speak out on pub­lic is­sues, host gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and dis­trib­ute voter guides, but these ac­tiv­i­ties have not been con­sid­ered as John­son Amend­ment vi­o­la­tions un­less the church says “vote for Can­di­date X.”

“It’s ba­si­cally in the hopes of gen­er­at­ing a test case on the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the John­son Amend­ment it­self,” Mr. Stan­ley said. “We seek to get the gov­ern­ment out of the pul­pits of Amer­ica. When the chance comes to ar­gue it in court, re­gard­less of how or if, we’ll be ready.”

Weeks af­ter the Oc­to­ber demon­stra­tion, IRS spokesman Rus­sell Ren­wicks said the tax agency had put a halt on all church au­dits. Al­though the IRS later re­pu­di­ated that state­ment, there was spec­u­la­tion of a stale­mate within the or­ga­ni­za­tion as a re­sult of an­other law­suit.

“In a re­cent case [it was ar­gued] that the IRS was not pro­ceed­ing prop­erly,” said John Pomer­anz, a Wash­ing­ton-based lawyer who spe­cial­izes in elec­tion-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties by tax-ex­empt or­ga­ni­za­tions. “The court ruled against the IRS and blew up their process for au­dit­ing churches.”

This could ex­plain the IRS in­ac­tion.

“We have won­dered whether or not the IRS is ham­strung at the mo­ment — if they are even able to au­dit churches right now,” Mr. Pomer­anz said. “I think there is a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion about the abil­ity of the IRS to au­dit churches, and they need to ad­dress that be­fore they can get to the ques­tion of whether they’re go­ing to au­dit these Pul­pit Free­dom Sun­day pas­tors.”

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