IRS sued to tighten enforcement of church electioneering

Published: Thursday, Nov. 15 2012 12:35 p.m. MST

In this Jan. 25, 2007 file photo, Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor stands in front of the door at the foundation headquarters in Madison, Wis. In the aftermath of November's election, the FFRF are arguing that the tax agency has been negligent in enforcing limits on tax-exempt churches directly engaging in electioneering.

Morry Gash, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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A nonprofit organization that polices church and state lines has sued the IRS in the aftermath of November's election, arguing that the tax agency has been negligent in enforcing limits on tax-exempt churches directly engaging in electioneering.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) cited a Bloomberg report from October that the IRS was suspending actions against religious institutions pending final clarification of tax rules.

At stake is not the right to speak out, which is protected, but rather tax status. As 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations, churches are prohibited from advocating for particular candidates, but not restricted on issue advocacy.

In October, according to a report in The Raw Story, "More than 1,000 pastors said they openly defied the IRS by telling their congregation to vote for a particular presidential candidate on Oct. 7. The event, dubbed “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” was organized by the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom in an attempt to prompt legal action over the tax code."

The FFRF complaint points particularly at "blatantly political" ads run before the presdiential election, in which Billy Graham appeared to implictly endorse Mitt Romney.

The FFRF complaint asks the court to order the IRS “to authorize a high-ranking official within the IRS to approve and initiate enforcement of the restrictions of 501(c)(3) against churches and religious organizations, including the electioneering restrictions, as required by law.”

Also cited in the complaint were actions taken by Catholic clergy heading into the election, including Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., who wrote comments on diocese letterhead warning that those who vote for candidates who support abortion "could be morally ‘complicit’ with these choices which are intrinsically evil. This could put your own soul in jeopardy.”

And in Madison, Wis., Bishop Robert Morlino wrote an article in the Catholic Herald, spelling out “non-negotiable” political matters. “No Catholic may, in good conscience, vote for ‘pro-choice’ candidates (or) … for candidates who promote ‘same-sex marriage,’ ” Morlino's article read, according to the FFRF complaint.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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