Where’s the other side in atheist lawsuit story?

Religion News Service had an interesting story recently about atheists challenging Uncle Sam over nonprofit financial reporting.

It’s a pretty straightforward account:

Nonbelievers are challenging the Internal Revenue Service’s special exemptions for religious organizations in a federal court in Kentucky, saying churches and other religious groups should have the same financial rules as other nonprofit groups.

If they prevail, it will change the tax-exempt status of churches and other religious organizations, and require the same transparency of donors, salaries and other expenditures that secular nonprofits must currently meet.

So far, so good.

Then comes this quote:

“This is a very strong case,” said Dave Muscato, public relations director for American Atheists, a national advocacy group and lead plaintiff in the case. “It seems to be straight-up discrimination on the basis of religion.”

Wow, the public relations director and lead plaintiff thinks it’s “a very strong case.” I’m sorry, but that made me chuckle. He’s not exactly an unbiased source.

I kept reading:

The case centers around who must file IRS Form 990, an annual reporting statement that provides information on a group’s mission, programs and finances.

Current tax law requires all tax-exempt organizations to file a Form 990 financial report — except churches and church-related organizations. A few state, political and educational organizations are exempt as well if their annual revenues fall below certain amounts.

This means the IRS treats religious organizations differently than it does all other organizations, the suit holds. It claims the IRS policy is a violation of the First Amendment and the due process promised under the Fifth Amendment.

The deeper I got into the story, the more I wondered if RNS would quote anyone besides the atheists.

The answer: Not really.

Perhaps RNS felt like it satisfied its journalistic responsibility with this note:

IRS spokesman Anthony Burke said the agency’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.

But given the broad complaints made about churches and church-related organizations, why not quote a religious source?

Earlier this year, Bob Smietana wrote a piece for USA Today about the federal government trying to give a tax break to Annie Laurie Gaylor, head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

From that story:

Gaylor said the government should not give religious groups any special treatment.

But Eric Stanley, senior counsel of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defending Freedom, said the First Amendment does give churches and other religious groups special privileges.

He said that too much government regulation of churches would interfere with religious freedom.

I wish RNS had quoted Stanley or a similar source in its story. Including an opposing viewpoint in a story about a lawsuit certainly would improve the perception — and actual quality — of the journalism.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • John Kaiser

    It seems that the church just lost a battle in court in regards to tax exempt status of housing allowances. I think the era of special privleges for religions is coming to and end. Yeh!

  • labman57

    The federal government should never have granted tax-exempt status to — and it should have long ago rescinded said status for — religious congregations and organizations that use their congregants’ money to lobby for or against public policies or legislative proposals, as well as those that use the pulpit as a means to proselytize a specific political agenda.

  • John Blackthorne

    Okay, so you’ve made the atheists’ perspective very clear. So, did you go looking for anyone else to quote, since you determined that RNS only quoted atheists in this regard? What IS the other side of the story? Did you seek any other opinion for your own article?

    Which atheist lawsuit story are you talking about here? Nonprofit financial reporting? Or tax breaks to atheists who are ‘ministers of the gospel’? Those seem to be two separate issues, so can we just stick to one subject at a time here? Not to mention, I would like to know how government lawyers can argue that atheists leaders can function as a religion? Or are they too confused that atheism is not a religion.

    How deep did you actually get in this story? Because every time I read an article about this, I never find any good reason as to why religious organizations shouldn’t have to abide by the same laws and rules that other nonprofit organizations do by disclosing their numbers. So, how exactly are YOU contributing to the actual quality of journalism?


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