After 1,586 pastors purposely broke the law Oct. 7 by endorsing political candidates from the pulpit, an atheist group has taken the bait and sued the Internal Revenue Service Wednesday for not taking action against these pastors’ churches.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) started Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008 to challenge the 1954 Johnson Amendment that prohibits tax-exempt churches from making political endorsements. ADF hoped the IRS would take action so that a lawsuit could be filed that would repeal the law.
“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,” ADF legal counsel Erik Stanley told Focus on the Family’s Citizen Link last month. He added that the purpose of the October event was “to make sure that the pastor, and not the IRS, decides what is said from the pulpit.”
But the IRS has not taken action against the churches or pastors, so the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Madison arguing that the IRS is not enforcing the federal tax code.
The FFRF claims that churches and other religious organizations have become more involved in political campaigns, adding that they are “blatantly and deliberately flaunting the electioneering restrictions.” In the lawsuit, the FFRF says that not enforcing the law is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment and a violation of equal protection rights, because the same preferential treatment is not provided to other tax-exempt organizations, such as the FFRF.
But Stanley told The Washington Times he doesn’t believe the case will go far: “I think the lawsuit itself really borders on frivolous. I don’t know how the FFRF can claim they’ve been harmed by the IRS’s refusal to enforce the Johnson Amendment. But, on the chance it does, then we will seek to protect those churches.”
The lawsuit also cites full-page ads run this fall in The New York Times and other newspapers by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association featuring a photo of Billy Graham urging Americans to vote applying biblical principles without explicitly naming a candidate. Graham met with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in October and pledged to do “all I can” to help the Republican presidential nominee.
Another aspect of the suit refers to an order from Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., which required all priests in his diocese to read a statement urging Catholics to vote: “Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord.”
Russell Renwicks, a manager in the IRS’s Mid-Atlantic region, said in October that the agency had suspended audits of churches suspected of breaching federal restrictions on political activity. A 2009 federal court ruling required the IRS to clarify which high-ranking official could authorize audits over the tax code’s political rules. The IRS has yet to do so.