In a lawsuit settlement with the atheist Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Internal Revenue Service admitted it had monitored churches for allegedly illegal political activity, but the details never were released because the group withdrew its complaint.
Now, Washington watchdog Judicial Watch has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the IRS seeking any records relevant to IRS monitoring of churches and other tax exempt organizations regarding alleged political activity.
The suit requests access to the communications that went on between the IRS and FFRF about the issue.
The atheist organization filed a lawsuit in 2012 alleging the IRS ignored its complaints about the speech of churches that cite the Bible regarding issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
FFRF said the statements violate the law, because the moral issues were being addressed in a political arena.
The atheists also complained of what they called “blatantly political” newspaper ads on the religious and moral issues.
Then, in June, an agreement was reached in which the IRS admitted it had been monitoring churches and other houses of worship for “electioneering and other political activity.”
Judicial Watch said that according to June 27 IRS letter to the Justice Department, the IRS has targeted 99 churches it said merited “high priority examination” for allegedly illegal electioneering activities.
The church-targeting was determined by an IRS ‘Political Activities Referral Committee.”
The Wisconsin-based FFRF describes itself as “an effective state/church watchdog and voice” for atheism, agnosticism and skepticism.
The organization trumpets the IRS agreement as an “IRS Victory!” on its website homepage.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said Americans have “the God-given right to both express their religious views and to engage in the political process.”
“It is troubling that the IRS seems set to rely on a group of atheists to point them toward churches that might have criticized politicians,” he said.
“And it is even more disturbing that the IRS would violate federal law, The Freedom of Information Act, in order to keep secret its monitoring of Americans praying together in church,” he said. “To be clear, the very IRS that abused tea partiers for Obama’s election now purports to be able to ‘audit’ houses of worship in order to protect politicians from criticism.
“I am sure the Obama administration is more than happy to use the excuse of a lawsuit by a leftist group to use the IRS to punish churches that oppose Obama’s war on religious freedom,” he said.
FFRF had claimed in 2012 that 1,500 members of the clergy violated electioneering restrictions Oct. 7.
“The atheist group has specifically cited church teachings against abortion and same-sex marriage as being in violation of the law,” Judicial Watch reported. “It also cited what it termed ‘blatantly political’ full-page ads running in the three Sundays leading up to the presidential elections by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. But the FFRF abruptly dismissed its IRS lawsuit after a church, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, intervened in the lawsuit to challenge the IRS’s alleged authority to ‘revoke a house of worship’s tax-exempt status, and levy fines against churches and individual leaders, when religious leaders are deemed to say things that the IRS does not allow.'”
FFRF suddenly dismissed its case when the IRS announced its agreement to adopt standards for determining whether or not churches are complying with restrictions on political activity.
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 at the time. “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. 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 was 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 was Oct. 5, when pastors were 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.”