Judge Gives Green Light to Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Lawsuit Against the IRS for Ignoring Pulpit Politicking

Back in November, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the IRS because of the government agency’s “failure to enforce electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations.” Basically, churches were endorsing political candidates from the pulpit and the IRS wasn’t doing anything to stop it.

Why is the IRS giving preferential treatment to churches?

The IRS tried to quash this lawsuit before it could proceed but FFRF just got some good news: U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman of the Western District of Wisconsin has dismissed the IRS’ motion, allowing FFRF to move forward with their lawsuit!

The biggest concern was “standing” — did FFRF even have the right to sue the IRS? Adelman answered in the affirmative:

If it is true that the IRS has a policy of not enforcing the prohibition on campaigning against religious organizations, then the IRS is conferring a benefit on religious organizations (the ability to participate in political campaigns) that it denies to all other § 501(c)(3) organizations, including the Foundation. As a victim of the IRS’s alleged discrimination, the Foundation has suffered an injury in fact.

Adelman’s point is essentially this: FFRF has a right to sue, so let’s shine some light on the IRS’ practices and find out if their claim has any merit.

The best part of the lawsuit has to be where Adelman smacks down the IRS’ circular argument that the atheists have no proof of any wrongdoing:

What the IRS seems to be saying is that because the Foundation has not already proved that the IRS has a policy of favoring religious organizations, it lacks standing to attempt to prove that such a policy exists. But of course this is wrong. If the Foundation is unable to prove that the IRS has a policy of favoring religious organizations, then its claim will fail on the merits, not for lack of standing.

This challenge couldn’t have come at a better time. Just last week, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability issued a report suggesting that Congress should change the law so that church leaders could endorse candidates from the pulpit.

FFRF’s lawsuit could stop Congress from doing anything of the sort and, more importantly, finally punish those churches who have broken and continue to break the law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit.

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.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Sad that the IRS needs a kick in the pants to enforce the law. Good that FFRF is there to deliver the kick. :/

    • NG

      Especially because it will bring in revenue and with the budget cuts the agency is facing (which is dumb that Congress did that because this is their main revenue source) unless they had to lay off/not hire people to do these audits.

      • Rob McClain

        Pretty sure that the IRS is getting roughly 16,000 new hires to handle enforcement of the tax side of Obamacare.

  • gimpi1

    I think the IRS (and the government in general) is terrified of appearing “anti-Christian” right now. I understand the fear that some of these groups will go right off the rails if they are “persecuted” by being held to the same standard everyone else is.

    However, the law needs to be enforced. In my opinion, it should not be changed. It’s reasonable to expect an organization benefiting from a tax-exemption to refrain from overt political action.

    There is a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. There is no constitutional guarantee of tax-exemption. Any church that wants to endorse candidates is free to do so, they just have to pay taxes like any other political organization. And they should.

    • JET

      There’s a big one up right now brought to light because of the IRS “scandal” over (not) targeting right wing 501(c)(4) organizations. A Congressional Representative is filing a lawsuit asking the Federal Courts to instruct the IRS to enforce the law as written. It will be interesting to see if he’s granted standing.

  • Sven2547

    Of course the churches will decry this act of “persecution”. For them, anything other than Christian-supremacy is “persecution”. A level playing field is “persecution”. Playing by the same rules as everyone else is “persecution”.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I am proud to be a dues-paying member of FFRF, so that I can honestly feel that in some (even small) way I help empower them to do the awesome work that they do.

    I highly recommend joining FFRF (and American United for Separation of Church and State, and Secular Student Alliance, and American Atheists, and JREF, and other national or local secular/humanist groups).

    Join. Donate. Volunteer.

    (end of commercial!)

  • Art_Vandelay

    I love this lawsuit so hard.

  • Bitter Lizard

    I’m glad the FFRF is pursuing this. But the reality is that even if churches couldn’t promote specific candidates by name, when they promote something like homophobia or creationism we all know which political party is getting a covert endorsement. Since religion is never too far away from politics in this country, churches really are for-profit political institutions, and their tax exemptions just give religion that much more power to infect policy.

    In short, I guess what I’m saying is tax the fuck out of all of them.

    • Blacksheep

      “…we all know which political party is getting a covert endorsement.”

      Very true. But equally true for liberal public radio stations (which I listen to at least half the time because I like them).

      Will we start recording/spying/reading transcripts to make sure that there are no endorsements, even covertly by innuendo, by any publically supported entity? It was abundantly clear who NPR supported when Obama was running for president. And it never felt odd to me!

      • Spuddie

        Nice try at false equivalence but it is completely without a factual basis.

        Public radio by its nature has open and public accounting for its money. They are not subject special rules exempting themselves from government scrutiny and obligations.

        When you hold various groups entangled with our political process and government to be above levels of rational scrutiny, they deserve to be knocked down a peg or three.

        • Blacksheep

          The thread was about “covert endorsement”, and that’s what I was responding to.

          Telling a true story as part of contemplating something is not a false equivelence.

          I’m a regular NPR listener and I can assure you that they were 100% (barely) covertly supporting Obama for President (I voted for him by the way, so my observation is not from the “losing” side).

          • quickshot

            Agreed. If we are going to call NPR politically neutral then we need to do the same for Fox News.

            • Blacksheep

              That’s a different topic, but NPR is a partially government supported, not-for-profit organization. FOX is neither.

              • quickshot

                Great point!

                Are you suggesting that a government supported entity be politically neutral? :)

                • Blacksheep

                  Am I suggesting that? I guess I’m saying what’s good for the goose…: ) – the partial sentiment here seems to be the idea that ONE of the reasons churches need to be apolitical is because they are tax-free oragnizations – but I doubt that the same scrutiny (and glee about a lawsuit) will be directed toward public radio, as an example of a tax-free, publically funded entity.

                • ShoeUnited

                  There were plenty of churches in support of Obama as well. Those churches likewise should be taxed. I have no problem investigating any non-profit that is not in compliance with non-profit regulations. If you believe you have a case then feel free to bring it up.

                  Just remember that the not everything broadcast on NPR is created or even affiliated with NPR. But I have managed to get one reporter fired from All Things Considered from lying about a piece he did. Considering that NPR has massive archives, if you have any evidence to bring forth inform them of where they went wrong and if you feel strongly enough bring it to a lawsuit.

          • Spuddie

            Covert endorsement from churches!

            Churches are exempt from paying taxes provided they do not get involved in political actions. Separation of Church and state and whatnot. NPR has no such provisions on their operations. You are trying to fling the Tu Quoque logical fallacy and failed miserably on the facts.

            • Blacksheep

              I just reread my post – Which “facts” did I get wrong?

              • Spuddie

                Unless you trying to convince me NPR is a church, you made a stupid argument.

                Churches are held to different standards by the IRS than public broadcasting. Plus NOBODY is claiming NPR is dodging tax laws.

                • Blacksheep

                  Thanks, I didn’t think I put any incorrect facts down. Opinion is different than facts, as you know.

                • 3lemenope

                  If you present only some of the relevant facts, you can paint any picture you like. Lying by selective omission is one of the most effective dissembling techniques, because one can–as you did!–deflect the charge by claiming with a straight face that everything you said is factually true.

                  A conclusion that follows directly from a fuller picture of relevant facts is no more of an opinion than one that follows from an incomplete picture of said facts.

          • Rob McClain

            Thank you for admitting your mistake. Your penance is to distribute Liberals for Jesus pamphlets during the 2016 election. ;)

    • Lorinda Pike

      …churches really are for-profit political institutions, and their tax
      exemptions just give religion that much more power to infect policy.

      In short, I guess what I’m saying is tax the fuck out of all of them.
      ——————————————————————————————

      Yep. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Time to stop ignoring this crap, and do something about it, like actually enforcing the law…

    • JDMArkansas

      The only downside to “taxing the fuck” out of churches is that if the churches pay taxes they will have more reason to believe that they own the government. (“I bought it! What do you mean I don’t own it?”) Thanks to the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, corporations are not only persons, legally they are “super-persons.” Individual flesh and blood persons have freedom of speech which can, however, be abridged by individual campaign finance donation limits. Corporations are regarded as “super-persons” whose freedom of speech is NOT subject to any limits per the Supreme Court. If churches are to be regarded as for-profit corporations (which they are in every real sense), they also have not only the right to promote political candidates, they also would have the right to UNLIMITED political campaign finance.

  • JET

    This is a great step in the right direction. I commend the FFRF for putting my membership dues to good work.
    Next up (in my wildest dreams) is to get the IRS to force religious organizations to follow the same transparency rules as all other 501(c)(3) organizations. That is to actually open their books and show that they’re using tax-exempt funds for charitably/humanitarian purposes. Of course this will never happen as it might have a somewhat detrimental effect on mega-churches and televangelists whose primary goal is their own personal enrichment. Can’t have that.

  • Blacksheep

    Atheists teamimg up with tax collectors… sounds almost biblical!

    • Bitter Lizard

      The atheists are suing the tax collectors. That’s what the article is about.

      • Blacksheep

        yes – so they will do what FFRF wants. A little poetic license.

        • The Captain

          Well what they “want” is for them to apply the law equally towards all americans the same. Seems a bit absurd to be against that.

        • phantomreader42

          So, Blacksheep, why do you think churches should be allowed to ignore the law when it’s inconvenient for them?

          • Blacksheep

            My question came first – does this mean that all publically supported enterprises must now stop supporting a political candidate in any way, overtly or covertly?

            And if so, how will we police it?

            I have never belonged to a church that endorses a condidate, but I believe that public speakers should enjoy full freedom of speach. Churches are public forums. The idea that the IRS will begin policing sermons – and that anyone would be OK with that – is not the way that I would like the country to be.

            • phantomreader42

              The churches in question OPENLY BRAGGED ABOUT BREAKING THE LAW! Are you incapable of seeing anything wrong with that?

              • Blacksheep

                So did our founding fathers! Pioneers of the civil rights movement broke the law too because the law wasn’t just.
                using the “law” in a philosophical conversation about what constitutes an ideal situation is kind of boring.

                • phantomreader42

                  So, do you think ALL nonprofits should be allowed to be tax-exempt while openly endorsing political candidates and refusing to disclose their financial dealings, or do you think that should be a privilege reserved for churches? And either way, why couldn’t you just SAY SO, instead of beating around the bush and babbling about tax collectors?

                • Darrell Ross

                  Blacksheep
                  Quit changing the subject.

                  You seem to think that 501(c)(3) organizations have the same privileges as 501(c)(3) Churches. They do not.

                  Churches do not have to pay property taxes and they are not required to file taxes and they are not audited nor required to hold regular meetings nor provide any transparency the way a standard 501(c)(3) non-profit is. Non-profits are regularly “policed” – they are audited by the IRS constantly and must have all their papers in order.

                  501(c)(3) groups are also not allowed to spend more than a certain amount (10% I think) of their budgets on political campaigning. This is the one area Churches are *supposed* to share but the IRS has been turning a blind eye and not enforcing it.

                  IMO, the IRS should fix this so that Churches are on equal footing with other 501(c)(3)s. I find it unlikely though that we will get a one-shot deal where Churches are all suddenly taxed the same as non-profits.

                  I think that it is a step in the right direction for the IRS to begin enforcing the one small rule that Churches are supposed to be following.

                  So:
                  1. Do you think churches should have to obey tax laws? Why or why not?

                  2. Do you think that requiring churches to pay taxes is unjust?

            • C.L. Honeycutt

              Right. They should be able to say what they want, and concurrently enjoy no special privileges.

            • Artor

              This is not a difficult subject. There are very specific terms that non-profits are required to abide by. Every other non-profit has to follow these terms, but churches are getting a pass. It’s a laughable claim that a church is a public forum. You are fantasizing a problem that isn’t related to what’s going on.

        • Artor

          Yes, so they will do what the Constitution and the stipulations of their 501 C-3 status require. You really need to troll better. All you’re doing is coming off as ignorant and obtuse.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      So that the tax collectors will stop treating Christians like a privileged elite. Well, like they say, you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

      *flips through the New Testament* Something about Caesar in here, I think…

      • Blacksheep

        you are taking my comment WAY too seriously.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          Quiet, heathen, I’m busy being outraged!

  • Abram Larson

    I actually saw this posted this morning on one of the economics blogs I frequent before any of the atheist blogs. I think that says something about how it’s not just the atheists who are peeved about the special treatment that churches get. FFRF’s case is strong. They have video evidence provided by 1000′s of churches who sent said evidence to the IRS. The IRS has prosecuted 0 of those cases and they have no choice but to admit they knew the infractions were occurring.

    • quickshot

      Actually, I am sure that a lot of conservatives/Tea Party types were mad that churches were basically organizing to support Obama.

      Enforcing these rules would be a logistical and legal nightmare, IMHO.

      • NewDawn2006

        Then the simple solution is that no church receives tax breaks, and then they can say what they want.

        • quickshot

          Some religious folks want that. Mike Huckabee would certainly agree with you.

  • Gerry Mooney

    Great news. I wish them success.

  • graciebaddog

    I am a member of FFRF and support the good work they do.

    But this lawsuit gives me pause.

    Say FFRF wins. It goes to SCOTUS.
    Is there any question that a 5-4 ruling will decide any probation on a
    religious institution is obstructing the church’s free speech despite
    the tax break. Check out Citizens United vs. FEC if you have any questions. Speech equals money.. period.

    Tax exemption for churches as long as they remained apolitical was enacted in 1954. Called the Johnson Amendment. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson_Amendment. That’s not that long ago.

    You
    can be certain churches will not be paying taxes anytime soon. Is it
    worth risking the admittedly barest restrictiveness on their speech as
    opposed to all the out politicking that will come?

    I hope the FFRF has gamed this out correctly. If I ever get a chance to ask Dan Barker a question that will be it.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Would seem likely to depend on how Kennedy views Walz, and perhaps Texas Monthly v Bullock.

      • graciebaddog

        I would GUESS Walz is the best bet for FFRF…The Texas Monthly v Bullock had the Free Press Clause as cover. But Good point and I’ll sleep a little better. I know I’m a being Debbie Downer here.

        • graciebaddog

          and reserving the right to say I told you so..

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          Most of the justices didn’t think consideration of the Press Clause needed to be reached in TMvB. On the other hand, the bad news is that Kennedy joined with Scalia and Rehnquist in dissenting for TMvB.

          Still, I think Walz is most central.

    • UWIR

      “Is there any question that a 5-4 ruling will decide any probation on a religious institution is obstructing the church’s free speech despite
      the tax break.”
      “probation”? Do you mean “prohibition”?

      “Check out Citizens United vs. FEC if you have any questions.”
      CU isn’t at all controlling.

      “Speech equals money.. period.”

      You’re a leftist drone. Period.

  • quickshot

    Lots of this is murky.

    First of all, numerous churches supported Obama in the election. There was even a church that served as a polling place with a giant mural of Obama. Cracking down on this will take free campaigning away from Democrats.

    If you are talking about conservative politics, this comes as a bad time for the FFRF. The IRS has been caught unfairly targeting Tea Party groups and will probably be reluctant to further get involved with limiting conservatives.

    Time will tell…..

    EDIT: the mural I am thinking of was at a school, not a church.

    • Makoto

      Ehh.. the deal is essentially “you get to be tax free, so long as you don’t support candidates”, so I don’t want them supporting any candidate, even those I may personally support. Sure, it’ll take away from candidates, but I think that’s a good thing, in the long and short runs.

      As for the IRS thing, that seems to have blown out as a non-scandal, since they weren’t just targeting Tea Party groups.

    • Thin-ice

      Surely you’re not suggesting that there was equivalent transgression on both left and right? For every liberal church that openly campaigned for Obama (and I never saw ANY evidence of such, including your alleged giant mural of Obama) there were a thousand conservative and fundamentalist churches that campaigned openly for their anti-Obama candidate. I don’t liberal churches would be impacted in the slightest should FFRF win.

      • quickshot

        Correction: the mural was at a school, not a church. I think it was initially thought to be a church. My bad.

        And while it depends on the situation, I think this will certainly affect the right and the left:

        http://www.christianpost.com/news/black-pastors-meet-in-va-to-discuss-support-for-obama-81083/

        • Blacksheep

          Are people here angry about the school mural? (assuming it was pre-election, at a polling place? Would people here “love the lawsuit so hard” if that mural resulted in a lawsuit? I doubt it. This is at least partially anti-church as much as it is pro-fairness.

          • Darrell Ross

            This is pro-fairness. It happens to also be anti-law-breaking-church.

            What about all of the churches which follow the rules? Don’t they deserve to be on equal footing with their counterparts?

            This is anti-law-breakers.

            I would love to see all churches taxes since I think they are given an unfair advantage but that’s not what this specific lawsuit is about, IMO.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        I understand that the limitation in the law originally was passed back in the early civil rights era, specifically to try and make it more difficult for pro-civil rights and anti-war groups on the left to impact politics. Times have changed….

      • Blacksheep

        Do you not realize that campaigning at Churches was an integral part of Obama’s election campaign? Why weren’t liberals upset by this? (perhaps they were, but I never heard about it).

        Here’s just one of many articles:

        http://www.npr.org/2012/10/29/163845744/obama-campaign-looks-to-black-churches-in-fla

        In another, Eric Holder and the IRS worked with Black Churches to educate them on exactly how to campaign for Obama in church – without crossing any lines.

        • Darrell Ross

          Sounds reasonable to me.

          If they don’t break the rules then they don’t break the rules. It’s normal for a non-profit to be explicit about what constitutes breaking the rules and what doesn’t. The Atheist Community of Austin’s hosts will say stuff like “Well I can’t respond to that comment on the air but maybe after the show is over.”

          There has to be room for freedom of expression and some gray area.

          It’s the explicit law breaking which needs to be stopped.

        • usclat

          I knew you were nothing but a troll in “I voted for Obama” clothing. Your arguments are incoherent and with no basis in what the discussion is about in this thread. The discussion centers around the FFRF winning the Standing issue to proceed in a case against thousands of ADMITTED violators of our income tax laws. Thousands of religious influencers (pastors, ministers, priests, etc.) basically thumbed their nose at the Federal government because they wanted to endorse political candidates and issues. OK. What the hell are YOU talking about? Go back to the PTL and Focus on the Family blogs. Troll.

          • quickshot

            I think he has a good point. The NPR story was relevant. We can’t just label everyone a Christian troll because we disagree with them.

        • Artor

          Yeah, that is pretty shitty, but it’s no big surprise. But I’ll clue you in on something; many liberals are infuriated by Obama, and if you haven’t noticed that, you are painfully oblivious. In any case, this shit needs to stop, no matter who is doing it. Churches can either start paying taxes, or they can STFU and stick to charity work.

        • RobertX

          Thank you for that very informative article. It said that across Florida, black churches were exhorting members to get to the polls and vote. It did not say anyone told them who to vote for.

    • TCC

      If this is a good idea in principle, who it favors or disfavors is really quite immaterial.

    • Artor

      I don’t see any downside. I don’t care if it’s Dems or Repubs campaigning from church. I just don’t want it happening. It’s wrong, and it’s not fair, no matter whom is doing it.

    • RobertX

      Um, no… Issa claimed the IRS was unfairly targeting Tea Party groups. Then it turned out that the IRS was targeting progressive groups as well. Why do you think the whole issue suddenly disappeared?

    • RobertX

      Gee… a public school had a portrait of the president of the United States on the wall. How unusual.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

      Oh, you missed the actual truth of the matter, where the IRS was targeting all groups that looked political, including left-leaning ones with words like “environmental” or “liberal” in their names. Do try to keep up?

  • A3Kr0n

    This is pretty big.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    I’ve long been split about whether it would be best to get the churches and other religious organizations to follow the rule of not endorsing political candidates or just not have them get tax exempt status in the first place. But, either way, there should not be this double standard where secular groups have to follow the rules while churches are not investigated for breaking the rules due to concern about offending Christians and Republicans. So, I’m generally in favor of the FFRF in this case. Thanks for sharing the news.

    • Darrell Ross

      According to this site, http://hushmoney.org/501c3-facts.htm, it appears that churches were granted the whole tax-exempt-in-return-for-no-political-shenanigans a while ago.

      They have a pretty clear advantage right now. I’m glad this stuff is finally coming into the light. I really dislike how much churches inform political opinion. So many sheep just voting as their pastors tell them to. Blech…

  • Rob McClain

    Mr. Mehta, I would like to point out that you wrote “the IRS tried to squash this lawsuit” in the article above. When referencing the act of a governmental agency to suppress a legal action, it would be more appropriate to use the word “quash”. Many writers confuse the two words because both call forward an action to stop an outside force, as in “squash the rebellion” for example. But, in this and any case where a legal action is referenced, please consider using the more relevant term “quash”.

    Always a pleasure to read your blog.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Dammit. You’re right. *shakes head*

      Fixed!

      • Rob McClain

        Grammar Nazi signing out. You are doing the Lord’s…oh, wait. No, that’s not right. You are dragging humanity down the stairs of the temple one bumpity-bump step at a time. Congratulations.

  • Tobias2772

    I want christian pastors to practice politics from the pulpit. I would rather they continue this practice – and pay their fucking taxes ! One, we would collect large sums of cash that could be put to much better purpose. Two, even more young people would leave religion even faster than they are now. Three, virtually no one would be convinced to vote as suggested unless they were already going to anyway.

  • rg57

    How does the FFRF intend to show that it did not receive the same benefit that these churches did? Can the courts require the FFRF to have violated the law, and been punished for it, to show standing? I think so.

    Standing is a very big issue in the federal courts. You must have suffered an actual injury, not merely a “what if”, and that injury must be specific to you, not to a wide range of people.


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