IRS takes hits from both sides of pulpit politicking debate

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 28 2013 1:54 p.m. MDT

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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The Internal Revenue Service is taking blows from both the secular and religious sides of the debate over tax breaks it grants to religious organizations and clergy.

Last week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation won a victory in its legal battle with the IRS over the agency's failure to enforce a ban on partisan politicking by tax-exempt religious groups, the Huffington Post reported.

A federal judge in Wisconsin denied the IRS' motion to dismiss the case, which contends that the IRS isn't enforcing the ban. "The suit also claims that the alleged IRS inaction undermines equal protection rights by giving preferential treatment to tax-exempt religious organizations over other 501(c)(3) groups, including the FFRF," Huffington reported.

FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor hailed the ruling as a step toward fairness and protecting democracy.

“The time for a free ride for churches is over,” Gaylor said. “The rest of us pay so much more in taxes because clergy pay so much less. If these churches — which are accountable to no one in government yet get so many favors — are allowed to engage in tax-exempt politicking, it would be the ruination of our democracy.”

That ruling came a week after a group of faith leaders released a report arguing for an end to the IRS' ban on explicit clergy endorsements, according to the Washington Post.

"The report by officials of major denominations (including the Southern Baptist Convention and Assemblies of God) and large nonprofit organizations (including the Crusade for Christ and Esperanza, one of the country’s biggest Latino evangelical groups) argues that the ban chills free speech and violates the culture of people who see the weaving of faith and political expression as essential to their religious practice," the Post reported.

The Post noted that the report follows "a controversial blowup over how the IRS chooses which groups to target for enforcement, and many are seeking change at the IRS. It also comes as Congress is seeking new revenue and potential tax code changes that would affect nonprofit organizations."

Erik Stanley, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, told OneNewsNow that FFRF will not likely get the relief it wants from the court.

“This is really an unprecedented lawsuit,” Stanley said, “and I'd be surprised if it's ultimately successful.”

ADF has been unsuccessfully trying to lure the IRS into court in 2008 over its ban on churches engaging in electioneering by holding “Pulpit Freedom Sundays,” in which pastors are encouraged to speak about political issues and candidates.

FFRF won a second small victory in another federal lawsuit last week by gaining standing to sue the IRS over its exempting religious organizations from having to file a Form 990, which details how donations are spent among other things, Religion Clause reported.

The judge ruled that FFRF has been injured because “the government is relieving an ongoing burden from some taxpayers on the basis of religious affiliation.”

That same judge is presiding over a third lawsuit FFRF has filed against the IRS over the 1954 federal “parish exemption” law — uniquely gifting “ministers of the gospel” with the right to deduct church “housing allowances” from taxable income. FFRF contends the tax break is unconstitutional.

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

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