Just as millions and millions of Americans across the land are meeting the approaching deadline set by the Internal Revenue Service to provide all sorts of information about themselves, and that signature on a check, the federal agency is putting itself on a different level.
One that is exempt from deadlines, according to a newly filed lawsuit against the agency.
The complaint alleges that the IRS was supposed to provide key information about a case in which it allegedly monitored various churches for suspected political activity, but refused to release details because the group that had complained withdrew its complaint.
The dispute already is the focal point of a lawsuit that was filed earlier by Washington watchdog Judicial Watch, which is demanding access to the communications that went on between the IRS and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The new complaint also is from Judicial Watch, on behalf of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which explained the IRS had a deadline last September to provide information, then a deadline in November, then January and then March.
None were met, the claim explains.
“Plaintiff is being irreparably harmed by reason of defendant’s withholding of records responsive to plaintiffs’ FOIA request, and plaintiff will continue to be irreparably harmed unless defendant is compelled to conform its conduct to the requirements of the law,” the complaint explains.
The ADF said it’s important that the IRS records on “its secret deal with an activist group to investigate churches” be uncovered.
“Americans deserve to know what the IRS is up to,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “The agency’s unwillingness to produce these records only furthers the perception that it makes secret deals with activists that it wishes to hide from the public. The IRS’s delays make no sense because we only asked for the same information that it already provided to Freedom From Religion Foundation. The IRS has forced us to file this lawsuit just so we can obtain what the agency is already legally obligated to produce.”
Tom Fitton, chief of Judicial Watch, said, “The Obama IRS seems oblivious to the federal court’s orders to provide full information. With the help of a compromised Justice Department, the IRS has engaged in prolonged stonewalling. The IRS thinks it can toy with a federal court, Congress, and the American people. For over two years, the administration has been hiding information on the IRS’s targeting of Obama’s political opponents. It is certainly in the public’s interest to know what the new IRS guidelines are for investigating a basic First Amendment right.”
Prompting the action was a July 2014 Freedom from Religion Foundation press release confirming it had reached a settlement with the IRS in its own lawsuit. It said, “The IRS has now resolved the signature authority issue necessary to initiate church examinations. The IRS also has adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations.”
The foundation specifically commented on the “Pulpit Freedom” movement sponsored by the ADF. It was urging the IRS to enforce what’s known as the “Johnson Amendment” against churches.
That purports to authorize the IRS to regulate sermons and requires churches to give up their constitutionally protected freedom of speech in order to retain their tax-exempt status.
But the ADF argues that is unconstitutional.
“The IRS cannot condition tax-exempt status on the surrender of a constitutionally protected freedom,” explained ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley, who heads the Pulpit Freedom effort. “Churches don’t have to give up their freedom of speech to remain tax-exempt any more than they have to give up their protection against illegal search and seizure. Nonetheless, behind closed doors, the IRS appears to be sharpening its procedures for monitoring sermons and performing additional audits. It should stop playing games with the American people, who can only assume by this continual and illegitimate secrecy that the agency has something to hide.”
Judicial Watch has reported 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.”
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.”
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.”