Imagine uttering the words “pro-life” in your church and finding yourself targeted by an investigation from the feared and reviled Internal Revenue Service.
An expert on the First Amendment conflict between pastors and the federal agency, which says it is investigating speech delivered from pulpits, confirms that’s possible.
Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund, told WND a recent case brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation against the IRS raises the prospect of investigations of pastoral speech.
FFRF demanded that the IRS investigate sermons focusing on certain politically charged “code words.”
But the case suddenly was dismissed at the request of FFRF, which said it was satisfied because the IRS agreed to adopt standards for determining whether churches and religious organizations are complying with restrictions on political activity. The case was dismissed without prejudice, so FFRF could file another lawsuit if it believes the IRS is not following through with its promise.
Blomberg said the case was brought by the foundation to force the IRS to attend church services and launch investigations.
But the abrupt closure left many questions unanswered, he said.
“That’s part of the problem,” he said. “The way the case was closed out. [It looks like] the FFRF collaborated with the IRS, getting their own case dismissed.”
He said still in question is what the IRS will allow ministers to say and in what context.
There are hints from the past. In 1993, the IRS issued guidance for its agents stipulating what a preacher can say during an election campaign.
“Talking about a pro-life cause, the importance of voting pro-life … those can be ‘code words’ that the IRS can use to come after the church,” Blomberg said.
“It is intimidating. What it is is speech police. That’s what’s going on,” he continued. “It’s a chill on speech. Even if you never lose tax exempt status, never personally face an excise tax, it’s … the specter of being investigated.”
The bottom line, he said, is the IRS uses the fear of government intervention to convince church leaders to self-censor.
“This should confirm for every American the belief we do not want to empower the government on what [is] said during religious services,” he said. “We need to be protecting [the speech of] religious leaders to religious congregations.”
Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel and Liberty Counsel Action joined the argument.
“The Obama administration knows that Christians are the greatest threat to his far-left agenda,” he said. “That’s why his subordinates at the Department of Justice were more than willing to settle a lawsuit with the Freedom From Religion Foundation by offering the services of the IRS to target ‘rogue political churches.’”
He said the plan is to “uncover potential illegal political activities or ‘electioneering’ by America’s conservative churches in the months leading up to the 2014 mid-term elections.”
“In Barack Obama’s America, the left has taken unprecedented steps to attack religious and individual freedom. Having already admitted to targeting conservative groups, the IRS has doubled-down and says it will now monitor churches,” he said.
The organization has developed resources for pastors to help, including “Silence is NOT an Option” and “The Patriot’s Handbook of Political Action for Pastors and Churches.”
The IRS already is facing investigations and lawsuits over the agency’s discrimination against conservative organizations. In the Republican-led House, members are considering the arrest of former IRS official Lois Lerner for allegedly concealing information about the agency’s discriminatory practices.
The Independent Journal Review chastised the IRS for launching another clandestine campaign against Christian churches.
“There’s some funny business (and not the ‘haha’ kind) going on between the IRS and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an organization of ‘freethinkers (atheists, agnostics)’ who are ‘committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church,’” the group said.
It was IRS official Mary Epps who told the tax division of the Department of Justice in a letter that as of June 23, the agency’s Political Action Referrals Committee had determined that 99 churches across the nation “merit a high priority examination.”
“Secrecy breeds mistrust, and the IRS should know this in light of its recent scandals involving the investigation of conservative groups,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb.
“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.”
ADF is asking the IRS to release “all documents related to its recent decision to settle a lawsuit with an atheist group,” FFRF
The situation smacks of politics, according to former Department of Justice Attorney J. Christian Adams.
“The left always goes after religion,” he said in an interview with Fox News. “They don’t like religion. It’s why the FFRF is trying to convert theology into politics.”
He said anti-religion groups “want to use the IRS as a weapon against Christianity, against faith.”
They “hate what the conservative wing stands for,” he said. “What they want to do is use the power of government, just like they did against the tea party. It’s the same thing. They want to turn belief in God into a political thing.
“They want to use the IRS to go after people who express faith from the pulpit.”
ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley, who heads the group's Pulpit Freedom Sunday campaign, asserted the IRS "cannot force churches to give up their precious constitutionally protected freedoms to receive a tax exemption."
"No one would suggest a pastor give up his church's tax-exempt status if he wants to keep his constitutional protection against illegal search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment," he said. "Likewise, no one should be asking him to do the same to be able to keep his constitutionally protected freedom of speech."
The 2014 Pulpit Freedom Sunday is Oct. 5, when pastors are encouraged to comment on the moral positions discussed in political campaigns. The goal is to set up a legal challenge to the Johnson Amendment, cited by the IRS as reason to censor Christians' speech during political season.
It bans churches and ministers from participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.
A short video about Pulpit Freedom Sunday:
ADF points out that before 1954, "there were no restrictions on what churches could or couldn't do with regard to speech about government and voting, excepting only a 1934 law preventing nonprofits from using a substantial part of their resources to lobby for legislation."