The Internal Revenue Service was unable to suppress a lawsuit over its failure to audit thousand of churches that allegedly violated federal tax law by engaging in partisan advocacy.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman of the Western District of Wisconsin on Monday denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation against the IRS.
“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,” Adelman wrote.
The Internal Revenue Code prohibits tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches, from intervening or participating in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate.
But many churches have openly defied the ban without consequences. In an annual event called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” pastors from more than 1,000 churches have challenged the regulation by preaching about political topics. Some pastors even record their overtly partisan sermons and send them to the IRS.
The FFRF, which is also a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, said allowing churches to engage in politicking but not other nonprofits was unfair. The group alleged the IRS had a "policy of non-enforcement of the electioneering restrictions" when it came to churches and religious organizations.
“As a result, in recent years, churches and religious organizations have been blatantly and deliberately flaunting the electioneering restrictions of §501(c)(3), including during the presidential election year of 2012,” FFRF wrote in its lawsuit.
In a separate lawsuit, the organization has challenged the annual information filings exemption provided to churches and other religious organizations. Tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations must file a detailed information with the IRS to obtain and maintain their tax-exempt status, unless they are a church.
“The time for a free ride for churches is over,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said. “The rest of us pay so much more in taxes because clergy pay so much less. If these churches — which are accountable to no one in government yet get so many favors — are allowed to engage in tax-exempt politicking, it would be the ruination of our democracy.”
[Preacher holding Bible via Shutterstock]