The battle over the controversial IRS regulations that govern churches and nonprofit organizations continues to rage between atheist activists and preachers, with both sides ramping up efforts to bolster their perspective on the legality of sharing politics from the pulpit.
Most recently, October 5, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm, saw more than 1,800 pastors participate in its annual "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," an initiative that encourages pastors “to reclaim their right to speak freely from the pulpit by preaching an election-related sermon.”
Consider that only 33 pastors participated in the same initiative back in 2008, indicating a stunning level of growth over the past six years, as Politico reported.
The massive surge in participation comes following a now-settled lawsuit that the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist activist group, waged against the IRS, claiming that the tax authority has not been holding churches accountable to rules restricting politics from the pulpit.
Despite the lawsuit and a purported pledge from the IRS this summer that it will hold churches accountable, Politico reported that, "A record number of rogue Christian pastors are endorsing candidates from the pulpit this election cycle, using Sunday sermons to defiantly flout tax rules," as the IRS appears to be avoiding the issue.
This comes even after the Freedom From Religion Foundation claimed it won a “major victory” in August when the IRS reportedly agreed to adopt standards for determining and investigating whether churches and religious organizations are in violation of restrictions on political activity.
That said, Politico reported that the "Pulpit Freedom" pastors and their critics are claiming that the IRS is "looking the other way," with the event extending beyond its typical one-day political extravaganza; many preachers are now regularly encouraging partisan participation leading up to Tuesday's election.
The outlet provided the example of the Rev. Mark Cowart of Church for All Nations in Colorado Spring, Colorado, who reportedly told congregants to vote Gov. John Hickenlooper out of office on October 19; he also endorsed Bob Beauprez, the Republican candidate.
"I’m endorsing biblical principles," he reportedly said after making the case for Beauprez.
It's unclear, though, whether these will be seen as punishable infractions by the IRS.
As TheBlaze previously reported, the tax authority's 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 recently told TheBlaze, when the agency will begin investigating again.
A government letter submitted to the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the midst of its 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.
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“[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.”
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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.
In the end, the battle comes down to an intricate debate over the rule of law.
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.
Just as the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued in an effort to force the IRS to uphold the Johnson Amendment, the pastors participating in the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" event are joining the Alliance Defending Freedom in hopes that the IRS will take action against preachers and spark a legal battle over the provision.
Politico's recent report offers up the ultimate motivation behind conservatives and pastors sparking a legal battle: "igniting a lawsuit with the IRS and taking the issue to the Supreme Court." In this instance, at attempt could be made to deem the Johnson Amendment unconstitutional.
For now, it appears both sides are simply waiting for the IRS to act. The central question, though, surrounds what, exactly, the tax authority will do, if anything. Read more about the issue's complex history here.