The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist activist non-profit, has a history of advocating for church-state separatism. Most recently, in November, the group sued the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in an effort to force the government to crack down on the political activities being undertaken by churches. The group followed up this legal challenge with yet another lawsuit last Thursday — one that targets the government’s alleged “preferential treatment of churches.”
The FFRF claims that churches are given special treatment when it comes to applying for and holding on to tax-exempt status. While churches are purportedly exempt from paying “expensive application fees” and filling out annual tax forms, non-religious groups must fill out the “onerous annual Form 990.”
To prevent this alleged inequality, the lawsuit — FFRF and Triangle FFRF v. the IRS — was filed in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin. In the press release announcing the legal action, the group notes that it, along with its local chapters, has had to pay hundreds of dollars to become tax exempt, while also filling out the annual Form 990 form.
The press release details the organization’s qualms with the IRS regulatory structures as they currently stand:
The Form 990 requires detailed reports on revenue and functional expenses, activities, governance, management, how groups fulfill their mission, and what proportion is spent on programs, management and fundraising.
The “preferential treatment of churches” directly benefits churches, while discriminating against other non-profit organizations, including the plaintiffs, “solely on the basis of religious criteria,” FFRF’s complaint asserts. This “results in obligations imposed on secular non-profits, including the plaintiffs, that are not imposed on churches.”
FFRF asks the court find the church exemptions a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the equal protection rights of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. FFRF seeks to enjoin the IRS from continuing to exempt churches and related organizations from the application and annual reporting required of all other non-profit organizations under §501(c)(3).
The FFRF’s co-president Annie Gaylor railed against the requirement, claiming that it is unfair. Additionally, she questioned why churches would not welcome being held accountable.
“Why should churches be exempt from basic financial reporting requirements? Equally important, why would churches not wish to be accountable?” Gaylor asked in the release. “Having tax-exempt status is a great privilege, and in exchange for that privilege, all other groups must file a detailed report annually to the IRS and the public on how we spend donations.”
This is the third lawsuit that the FFRF has launched against the IRS surrounding religious groups and their handling within the tax system. In August, the group also challenged housing tax regulations that ministers and clergy benefit from.