FFRF is Suing the IRS, Claiming That It Gives Preferential Treatment to Religious Groups

It was only a week ago when American Atheists announced it was suing the IRS because Commissioner Douglas Shulman was giving preferential treatment to churches and religious organizations.

I don’t see a cross on here

You can read a lengthier explanation here, but here’s the gist of their argument:

Overall, AA argues, the IRS gives unfair preferential treatment to religious groups and discriminates against atheists.

It prevents AA from getting donations larger than $5,000 because they would then have to disclose the donors’ names, something churches don’t have to do. This gives churches a “fundraising advantage.”

The filing fees to retain 501(c)(3) status are expensive — something churches don’t have to pay but atheist groups must.

Atheist groups have to pay their staff more money since they can’t deduct anything for housing expenses like churches can.

AA is asking the Court to rule that all tax codes treating churches differently from other non-profit groups are unconstitutional.

Today, the Freedom From Religion Foundation along with their Triangle Freethought Society chapter in North Carolina announced that they, too, are suing the IRS in a federal lawsuit because of the government agency’s “preferential treatment of churches in applying for and maintaining tax-exempt status.”

“Why should churches be exempt from basic financial reporting requirements? Equally important, why would churches not wish be accountable?” asks Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Having tax-exempt status is a great privilege, and in exchange for that privilege, all other groups must file a detailed report annually to the IRS and the public on how we spend donations.”

“The unfairness of this is so overwhelming,” says FFRF President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor. “There are different rules favoring churches.”

How this is different from AA’s lawsuit, I’m not sure, but I like that the court system is being hit with this from different directions. The cases could always be merged if they make it past the first hurdles.

More technically, FFRF is arguing that all 501(c)(3) non-profits have to file IRS Form 990 (which lists important information about your organization, including major donors, staff salaries, expenses, etc.) every year… but churches and certain other religious organizations are exempt from doing that.

The actual lawsuit (PDF) argues:

The preferential treatment of churches and certain other affiliated religious organizations by the IRS, under the direction and control of the defendant [Acting Commissioner of the IRS Steven] Miller, directly benefits churches and other religious organizations, while discriminating against other non-profit organizations, including the plaintiffs, solely on the basis of religious criteria.

The preferential treatment provided to churches and other affiliated religious organizations constitutes an exclusive and discriminatory benefit to religion in violation of the Establishment Clause, as well as the equal protection rights required by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

This is actually FFRF’s third skirmish against the IRS over the past few months. In August, a district court granted them standing to sue the government over a law that lets church leaders (but not atheists) “deduct payment designated as a housing allowance from taxable income” when filing their taxes.

“We are very pleased that the court has acknowledged our injury and right to sue over this,” said Barker, a former minister who previously qualified for housing allowance benefits, but does not have that privilege as director of an atheist/agnostic organization. FFRF calls the statute a subsidy, rather than an accommodation of religion.

Last month, FFRF sued the IRS for not going after politically active churches.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.