Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm, is accusing the Internal Revenue Service of "stonewalling" its recent attempt to obtain legal documents related to an agreement the agency reached this summer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist activist group.
The IRS recently settled a lawsuit brought by the secular organization surrounding procedures governing the investigation of possible tax infractions at American churches.
The Alliance Defending Freedom filed a Freedom of Information Act request on July 22, seeking additional details about what the agreement entailed, but has yet to receive documentation.
"The IRS wrote in a recent letter that it will not respond until Sept. 29," the legal firm said in a press release. "That’s well after the amount of time it is allowed by law, even though the information ADF is requesting is the same information the IRS has already provided to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which struck a deal with the agency to end the lawsuit Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Koskinen."
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Alliance Defending Freedom litigation counsel Christiana Holcomb told TheBlaze in a statement that "secrecy breeds mistrust" and that her organization will continue to fight the IRS's decision not to release the information in a timely manner.
"We expected the IRS to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and produce all the documents pertaining to the new procedures it told [the Freedom From Religion Foundation] back in July that it adopted for investigating churches," she said.
In a letter dated August 28, the IRS wrote to the Alliance Defending Freedom, claiming that it would need an extension through September 29 to locate the requested information pertaining to the case.
Acknowledging that this is past the timeframe permitted under the law, the letter instructs the organization that it can file a lawsuit in the interim if it so wishes.
"Unfortunately, we will still be unable to locate and consider release of the requested records by September 11, 2014," the letter reads. "We have extended the response date to September 29,2014 when we believe we can provide a final response."
Holcomb said that her organization is simply attempting to gain access to the same documents and information that were already granted to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
"Although Freedom From Religion Foundation announced in a press release that the IRS had adopted new procedures for investigating churches, neither FFRF nor the IRS has made that information available to the American people," she said. "[Alliance Defending Freedom] is simply requesting that the IRS disclose the same information it already provided to an atheist group."
Read the letter from the IRS below:
If the agency continues to delay, Holcomb said that the legal firm is left to assume that the tax authority wants to keep its procedures for investigating churches "out of the public eye and away from legal scrutiny."
As TheBlaze previously reported, IRS investigations are currently on hold as the agency deals with ongoing scandal for allegedly unfairly targeting conservative groups. It is unclear, as Alliance Defending Freedom noted, when the agency will begin investigating again.
This news comes after the Freedom From Religion Foundation claimed it won a “major victory” last month after the IRS reportedly agreed to adopt standards for determining and investigating whether churches and religious organizations are in violation of restrictions on political activity.
A government letter submitted to the atheist group in the midst of the now-dismissed lawsuit indicates that officials have continued over the past few years to monitor which churches “merit a high priority examination” for violating tax law, though it is unclear how alleged infractions are being handled.
Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told TheBlaze in August that his organization was assured by the IRS that the agency isn’t offering a special allowance to churches following reports that officials were letting churches of the hook.
“[They assured] our attorney Rich Bolton who’s dealing with them,” Barker explained. “It was conference calls — basically assured … that they now have someone in place who will resume their normal practice.”
After gaining these assurances, the Freedom From Religion Foundation decided to drop the case and to continue monitoring how the IRS proceeds with church infractions, as TheBlaze previously reported.
U.S. District Judge Lynn S. Adelman approved a joint motion for dismissal between the atheist organization and the IRS in July. The court document notes that the Freedom From Religion Foundation is satisfied that the tax authority no longer has “a policy … of non-enforcement specific to churches and religious institutions.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation affirmed that it had received “information” about the IRS upholding policies governing churches. The group’s own motion for dismissal memo includes a June 27 letter indicating that “the IRS has a procedure in place for ‘signature authority’ to initiate church tax investigations/examinations.”
In the letter, which was originally sent to the Department of Justice by Mary Epps, acting director of the IRS’s exempt organizations examinations — the government body that ensures organizations are abiding by tax law — Epps said that 99 churches “merit a high priority examination.”
As of June 23, 2014, records showed that 15 churches allegedly violated tax law in 2010, 18 did so in 2011, 65 did in 2012 and only one was seen as possibly violating the law 2013, though it is unclear how, if at all, these churches are being further investigated or punished.
Image source: Freedom From Religion Foundation/Justice Department
At the core of the now-dismissed Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit was the Johnson Amendment, a controversial IRS code added in 1954 that precludes nonprofit organizations — churches included — from engaging in campaign activity.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and conservative groups have long clashed over the issue of church politicking, with the conservative legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom organizing the annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” event.
The 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.
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