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IRS agrees to probe churches preaching politics

POSTED: August 8, 2014 12:00 p.m.
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A recent IRS settlement with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an atheist lobbying group, has the tax agency pledging to investigate religious groups and pastors who preach politics from the pulpit.

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WASHINGTON — America's tax collector, already in hot water over allegations it unfairly targeted conservative nonprofits seeking tax exemptions, has agreed to investigate churches and pastors who preach politics from the pulpit, reports show.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit group of atheists and agnostics who aim "to keep religion and government separate," filed a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service in 2012, claiming the tax agency didn't pursue investigations of religious organizations — specifically churches — that participated in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." The event is organized through the law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, which urged pastors to violate a 60-year-old IRS rule banning such speech.

Passed in 1954, the so-called Johnson Amendment bars non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing a candidate. The measure, at the behest of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, was meant to target specific political opponents,The Washington Times noted last year, but its use of Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code extended the prohibition to tax-exempt religious groups.

The FFRF is also tax-exempt under the same IRS provision, according to its latest available Form 990 filing. That 2012 filing noted the FFRF had an income of just over $3 million in 2012.

According to a FFRF statement, "Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in fact, has become an annual occasion for churches to violate the law with impunity. The IRS, meanwhile, admittedly was not enforcing the restrictions against churches." The group had previously sued the IRS in 2009 over the matter, with the agency pledging to appoint someone to monitor churches, but, FFRF alleged, the IRS didn't follow through.

The latest IRS settlement — which is contained in a joint motion to dismiss filed in federal court for the Western District of Wisconsin — "is a victory, and we’re pleased with this development in which the IRS has proved to our satisfaction that it now has in place a protocol to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, said in the statement.

However, the ADF wants the IRS to detail what went into the settlement and what the agency's plans are to enforce the Johnson Amendment.

"Secrecy breeds mistrust, and the IRS should know this in light of its recent scandals involving the investigation of conservative groups," Christiana Holcomb, a litigation counsel for the group, said in a statement. "We are asking the IRS to disclose the new protocols and procedures it apparently adopted for determining whether to investigate churches. What it intends to do to churches must be brought into the light of day."

Over the years, repeated attempts have been made to repeal the Johnson Amendment. In 2013, the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, responding to a request from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, endorsed ending the ban on political speech in pulpits along with accepting a prohibition on non-profits giving money to candidates.
"It is both disturbing and chilling that the federal government regulates the speech of religious organizations," Michael E. Batts, who chaired the panel, wrote. "The prohibition against participation or intervention in a political campaign (by non-profits) … is the only law of its type on the books."

The group noted, "For some faith communities, engagement in political communications is inextricably steeped in their history and culture. For example, a 2012 Pew Research Center study reveals black Protestant churchgoers are eight times as likely to hear about political candidates at church as their white mainline counterparts."

For the time being, any IRS probes over ideology are on hold, Christianity Today reports, noting tax authorities aren't "free to investigate churches until a moratorium related to the agency's controversial scrutiny of tea party organizations is lifted after a congressional investigation closes."

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com
Twitter: @Mark_Kellner

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