The Internal Revenue Service has settled a lawsuit brought by a secular activist group, reportedly agreeing to adopt standards for determining and investigating whether churches and religious organizations have violated restrictions on political activity.
The precise terms of the settlement are still unclear, as is how the IRS will amend its policies to enforce tax law on churches in a way that is palatable to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has long decried “rogue political churches.”
The IRS and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a joint motion for dismissal July 17, though the court has not officially closed the case, according to Christianity Today.
That said, the atheist group has said that an unspecified settlement agreement is underway.
Freedom From Religion Foundation co-resident Annie Laurie Gaylor called the IRS’s decision to settle the case — a legal battle that began in federal court in Wisconsin back in 2012 — “a victory,” despite the moratorium currently in place on all IRS investigations of nonprofit groups.
“This is a victory, and we’re pleased with this development in which the IRS has proved to our satisfaction that it now has in place a protocol to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions,” Gaylor said in a statement.
At the core of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit is the Johnson Amendment, a controversial IRS code added in 1954 that precludes nonprofit organizations — churches included — from engaging in campaign activity.
“FFRF was asking that the Johnson Amendment be enforced against churches. The IRS has been enforcing the Johnson Amendment against churches since it was passed by Congress in 1954,” Erik Stanley, an attorney at Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm, told TheBlaze. “The agency took a brief break from enforcing the law against churches in 2009 after its procedures for auditing churches was declared unlawful by a federal district court in Minnesota.”
While church audits were put on hold at that time and the IRS promised to adopt new parameters for auditing houses of worship, including the hiring of an official to explore complaints, this apparently never happened.
Stanley, whose own organization has long opposed the Johnson Amendment and crackdowns on pastoral speech from the pulpit, said that recent news that the IRS has settled with the atheist group creates some concern.
“Every American should fear an IRS that uses its vast power to target, threaten, and punish political opponents,” he added. “Churches have succumbed to this regime of fear for the last 60 years under the Johnson Amendment, which was added to the tax code specifically to silence speech a politician didn’t like.”
There’s also the fear that the IRS might have new policies and procedures regarding churches that have not yet been released to the public — a potential factor that could lead to “unequal enforcement of the law,” Stanley said.
The Alliance Defending Freedom is demanding that the IRS offer up its new policies that were drafted as part of its settlement with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, filing an Freedom of Information Act request last Tuesday in an effort to obtain all related documentation.
“Churches have a right to know how they will be treated by the IRS. And the IRS, as a public agency, cannot enact new policies in secrecy,” Stanley said, noting that his organization is willing to represent any church that is punished for pastoral speech that violates the Johnson Amendment.
He added, “Our goal is to have the Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional and to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit.”
While the situation is settled for the time being, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has said it is willing to go back to court if needed to ensure that churches that engage in illegal political activity are properly treated under the law.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom have long clashed over the issue of church political activity, with the conservative group organizing the annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” event.
The annual initiative encourages pastors “to reclaim their right to speak freely from the pulpit by preaching an election-related sermon.” The next event will be October 5.
The latest debate over IRS policies comes as the agency is under fire for allegedly unfairly targeting conservative groups.
An IRS representative did not immediately comment to TheBlaze about the details of the settlement.
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