The Internal Revenue Service, already probably the most reviled of federal agencies, was caught harassing conservative organizations and now is the focal point of multiple investigations by irate members of Congress who believe the agency deliberately withheld information.
Now yet another scandal could be looming.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the largest constitutional-rights legal teams in the nation, has submitted a demand for information about the agency’s actions against churches.
“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 in an announcement Thursday.
“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.”
The issue developed because of a recent announcement by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that the IRS had set up procedures to begin investigating what the group called “rogue political churches.”
So ADF now is asking the IRS to release “all documents related to its recent decision to settle a lawsuit with an atheist group.”
The request explains that FFRF “announced that the IRS had put in place ‘protocols to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions’ and had ‘adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations.'”
So ADF asked for “all documents related to any existing, proposed, new, or adopted procedures for church tax inquiries or examinations from January 2009 to the present” and well as documents relating to “Regulation 301.7611-1” and those documents “referenced in FFRF’s July 17, 2014, press release.”
“The IRS claims it is temporarily withholding investigations of all tax-exempt entities because of congressional scrutiny of its recent scandals, but no one knows when it will decide to restart investigations based on any new or modified rules that it develops,” ADF explained.
The anti-religion foundation mentioned ADF’s annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an event to protest the Johnson Amendment, which “authorizes 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.”
“The IRS cannot force churches to give up their precious constitutionally protected freedoms to receive a tax exemption,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley, who heads Pulpit Freedom Sunday. “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. Likewise, no one should be asking him to do the same to be able to keep his constitutionally protected freedom of speech.”
Pulpit Freedom Sunday will be held Oct. 5 this year.
The documents request includes “correspondence, memoranda, statements, emails, text messages, letters, calendar or diary logs, facsimile logs, telephone records, call sheets, tape recordings, notes, and other documents and things that refer or relate to the foregoing matter in any way.”
FFRF claimed victory when the IRS decided to “prove to our satisfaction that it now has in place a protocol to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions.”
“Of course, we have the complications of a moratorium currently in place on any IRS investigation of any tax-exempt entities, church or otherwise, due to the congressional probe of the IRS,” said FFRF spokeswoman Annie Gaylor. “FFRF could refile the suit if anti-electioneering provisions are not enforced in the future against rogue political churches.”
WND has reported the challenge to the IRS, which actually developed years before the latest IRS scandals.
Stanley previously noted that preaching about scriptural principles and applying them to the positions of candidates for public office is not “political” speech, it’s “core religious expression from a spiritual leader to his congregants.”
During the annual event, pastors deliberately apply biblical perspectives to the positions of candidates for public office in defiance of the 1954 Johnson Amendment.
ADF’s aim is to provoke a legal challenge from the IRS that would enable it to file a lawsuit and defeat the regulation in court on constitutional grounds.
The Johnson Amendment 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.
Supporters of the event, which began in 2008 with just 35 pastors, contend the government cannot dictate to churches and ministers their sermon topics. In recent years, thousands of pastors have participated.
Stanley said pastors “are simply applying Scripture and theological doctrine to the positions held by the candidates running for office. Pastors have been applying scriptural teaching to circumstances facing their congregations for centuries.”
Stanley said the issue is simple: Government cannot be allowed to condition a status, such as being tax-exempt, on the “surrender of a constitutionally protected freedom.”
He explained that Democratic Sen. Lyndon Johnson got the amendment adopted in 1954 “with little notice as a means to silence non-profit groups that opposed his bid for re-election.”
“The government has no automatic right to the church’s money just because its pastor won’t give up his constitutionally protected right to free speech,” he said.
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.”