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Atheists Sue IRS for Not Punishing Churches

An atheist group has filed a federal lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for not investigating scores of complaints lodged against churches that have been accused of "electioneering" during the presidential election.

Christian News is reporting that that a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) cites a number of specific complaints against churches, including the 1,500 pastors who took part in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" last month, which have yet to be investigated.

The suit also refers to Catholics priests who urged their congregations to vote pro-life, and to what it calls "blatantly partisan full-page ads" which were purchased by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and which encouraged Christians to vote for Biblical principles.

The FFRF says that too many non-profit religious organizations have been “blatantly and deliberately flaunting the electioneering restrictions” of the IRS which specifically restrict this kind of speech.

According to the IRS website, “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. The prohibition applies to all campaigns including campaigns at the federal, state and local level. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

Churches and other non-profit ministries can speak out on political and moral issues as well as encourage citizens to vote, but they cannot promote or oppose a specific candidate.

The FFRF says it filed 27 complaints with the IRS and that none were ever investigated.  For this reason, their suit is asking a federal court to compel the IRS to force IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman “to authorize a high-ranking official within the IRS to approve and initiate enforcement of the restrictions of §501(c)(3) against churches and religious organizations, including the electioneering restrictions, as required by law.”

Many Christian legal organizations have been trying to get the IRS to act on a case so that they can challenge its constitutionality in court. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal organization that was behind the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" movement, explains that this particular law, known as The Johnson Amendment which was passed by Congress in 1954, was added to the tax code as a result of the political scheming of Lyndon B. Johnson who was running for re-election to the U.S. Senate at the time. Experts who have studied the law say it is not rooted in constitutional provisions for the separation of church and state, which means it has a very good chance of being overturned if challenged.

“Pastors should decide what they preach from the pulpit, not the IRS,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “It’s outrageous for pastors and churches to be threatened or punished by the government for applying Biblical teachings to all areas of life, including candidates and elections. The question is, ‘Who should decide the content of sermons: pastors or the IRS?’”

The IRS refused to comment on the FFRF case.

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