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Atheist Group Sues Internal Revenue Service For Not Enforcing U.S. Tax Code

November 20th, 2012

Freedom From Religion Foundation Sues the Internal Revenue Service

Internal Revenue Service sued by Freedom From Religion Foundation over Alliance Defending Freedom's Pulpit Freedom Sunday event

Pastors across the U.S. want the Internal Revenue Service to give them the right to preach politics from the pulpit.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group from Madison, Wisc., filed a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service last week for not cracking down on churches who endorse political candidates.

Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor cited concerns about churches receiving preferential treatment over other non profit organizations with tax-exempt status as the reasoning behind the lawsuit. One of the examples of preferential treatment given by Gaylor was the recent full-page ad endorsing Romney in the New York Times that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association paid for; the Association was not investigated or fined for this action by the IRS, even though a similar ad paid for by the Foundation most likely would have been.

Allowing churches to endorse political candidates would also present a way for tax-deductible – and even unreported – campaign contributions to be made.

The Foundation, which has repeatedly petitioned the IRS to enforce U.S. tax code in recent years, claims that the Oct. 7 “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” event was the tipping point that forced them to act. Gaylor reasoned that filing a lawsuit was the only way to get the IRS to fulfill its regulatory obligations.

Alliance Defending Freedom Invivted Lawsuit through Pulpit Freedom Sunday

The Freedom From Religion Foundation was shocked when the 1600 church leaders from around the U.S. who participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an event organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, were not investigated or fined by the Internal Revenue Service even though the participants knowingly violated U.S. tax code by endorsing political candidates.

Alliance Defending Freedom’s leaders welcome the lawsuit and claim that the purpose of the event was to invite one. Many of the pastors who participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday videotaped their politically-charged sermons and mailed them to the IRS in an effort to accomplish this goal. The ADF hopes that the lawsuit will prove to be a test case on the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment; a favorable ruling might allow them to successfully argue that the amendment should be revoked.

A video produced by the Alliance Defending Freedin that discusses why many Christians believe pastors should be able to endorse political candidates from the pulpit.

How the Universal Life Church Avoids Religious Speech Issues with the IRS

The information listed below may not be factually accurate, so do not take it at face value. This information also does not constitute legal advice on the part of the Universal Life Church Monastery.

The crux of the argument made by the Freedom From Religion Foundation revolves around the Internal Revenue Service failing to enforce the Johnson Amendment. According to this section of U.S. tax code (one of the few that regulates the speech of tax exempt organizations), an organization with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status is only in violation of the law when it endorses or opposes political candidates. So, while it is acceptable for churches to put together voter guides that weigh the relative strengths of candidates, the Johnson Amendment says it is illegal for pastors to say “Vote for this particular candidate.”

The Universal Life Church Monastery intentionally did not choose to file as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, although it could have done so, because it wanted to retain the right to endorse candidates if it wants to. The ULC thus registered as a non profit organization with the State of Washington; this is a filing shared by Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic and many other conventional churches throughout the Universal Life Church Monastery’s home state. While it does not receive the same tax benefits as it would if it had a 501(c)(3) filing, the ULC Monastery has the ability to say what it wants, when it wants, and is thus allowed to endorse specific political candidates (although it generally abstains from doing so).

The church leaders who participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday should take a leaf from the Universal Life Church’s book in order to gain the freedom of speech they desperately want; all they have to do is revoke their 501(c)(3) status and file as a non profit corporation in the states they operate in. The one downside of this switch is that these churches would be taxed on the millions of dollars in donations they receive every year, a cost that appears to be far too steep for these church leaders to bear.

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