A challenge brought by American Atheists to the Internal Revenue Service regulations that do not treat religious and non-religious non-profits equally has been dismissed on standing grounds. A federal judge in Kentucky ruled that because they had not tried to qualify as a religious non-profit, they didn’t have standing to sue.
A review of case law establishes that the words “church,” “religious organization,” and “minister,” do not necessarily require a theistic or deity-centered meaning….
Thus, the Atheists’ assertion that they are subjected to unconstitutional discrimination and coercion due to their alleged inability to gain classification as religious organizations or churches under I.R.C. §501(c)(3) is mere speculation. At this point, the Atheists have no idea whether they could gain classification as a church or religious organization under I.R.C. §501(c)(3) because they have never sought such classification. Accordingly, the Atheists have not suffered a particularized injury which is fairly traceable to the actions of the Commissioner.
There are many special benefits that are given to religious organizations in the IRS code. Churches do not have to apply for non-profit status, they’re given it automatically. They don’t have to file a Form 990 every year like secular non-profits do. And they get the parsonage allowance, which is being challenged in a separate case by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (they won at the district court level, it’s in the appeals court now).
Here’s the problem, though. If atheist groups apply for and are considered a “religious organization” by the IRS for these purposes, it will give ammunition to religious groups to say “see, atheism is a religion too!” You know damn well that if that happens, the Christian right legal groups will then be claiming that you can’t teach anything that is viewed as supporting atheism, like evolution, in public schools because of the Establishment Clause.
Update: In fact, they’re doing it already.
Attorney Harry Mihet of Liberty Counsel explains that the legal test for a religious or nonreligious organization does not involve believing in a diety.
“So interestingly enough,” he says, “the court is suggesting that the atheists can receive the same types of benefits because they themselves are a religion or religious.”
Mihet calls that a “remarkable concept,” one Liberty Counsel has been pursuing in the courts for some time because it has important implications.
Why? Because subjects such as evolution are allowed to be taught in schools but creation science is denied.
Mihet explains: “Because if atheism or humanism are religions themselves, and public schools decide to teach the tenets of those religions while excluding the tenets of other theistic religions, then that is discriminatory treatment in and of itself.”
So the Liberty Counsel attorney contends that in claiming discrimination, the atheists may have opened the door for challenges from Christians and other faith groups in the future.
How entirely unsurprising. You can read the full ruling here.