Heading for a showdown

In order to maintain their non-profit status, the IRS has rules that say that such institutions have to refrain from outright partisan politics such as supporting political parties and candidates. Some churches have chafed under this restriction, think it an unconstitutional infringement on their free speech rights, and have sought to directly challenge that rule by organizing ‘Pulpit Freedom Sundays’ where they explicitly endorsed candidates and even sent the tapes to the IRS, daring them to come after them.

The IRS has avoided taking up the challenge so far and ignored what the churches have done but that do-nothing option may soon be precluded. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the IRS for its inaction, charging that it was not enforcing its rules equally and thus preferring church-based non-profits over others and in a settlement announced yesterday, the IRS agreed to monitor churches and other places of worship for electioneering.

According to the FFRF:

The IRS has now resolved the signature authority issue necessary to initiate church examinations. The IRS also has adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations. While the IRS retains “prosecutorial” discretion with regard to any individual case, the IRS no longer has a blanket policy or practice of non-enforcement of political activity restrictions as to churches.

This settlement does not force the IRS to sue churches but it would be hard pressed to ignore cases of blatant electioneering, which is what the Pulpit Freedom Sunday churches are deliberately doing.

So expect to see a legal confrontation soon as to whether the IRS can make rules restricting the rights of speech in return for granting tax-exempt status.


  1. machintelligence says

    I doubt that the IRS would actually sue the churches, but scheduling a few “show cause” hearings on why the tax exempt status should nor be cancelled might get their attention.

  2. Trebuchet says

    @1: They WANT the attention. They WANT to be sued, or have their tax-exempt status revoked. They’re looking for a SCOTUS decision along the lines of Citizens United. Hey, churches are people too!

    Women and gays, on the other hand….

  3. Stabatha says

    Giving religious organizations tax exemptions just because they’re religious is archaic and should probably be discontinued, but what exactly is the rationale for requiring non-profit orgs to be nonpolitical?

  4. moarscienceplz says

    Any of the god-botherers who think having a church that meddles in governing, or a government that favors one church over another, is a good idea, should read about Tudor England. That should scare the pants off them, assuming they can actually read words of more than two syllables.

  5. thascius says

    @4-It probably wouldn’t bother them at all because you see Tudor England was promoting the wrong KIND of Christianity. As long as the government promotes the right kind of Christianity (i.e. theirs) it will be no problem at all, at least for them. As for those who don’t follow the correct form of Christianity, they just have to be reeducated that freedom of religion doesn’t mean the freedom to practice any religion or none, it means the freedom to practice the correct religion.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Stabatha @ # 3: … what exactly is the rationale for requiring non-profit orgs to be nonpolitical?

    This all started back in the 1950s, when some Texas “charities” began criticizing then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Just about the entire Congress agreed with LBJ’s insistence that non-profits should stay out of political campaigns, on the utterly reasonable grounds that such involvement would both provide unfair advantages for candidates without such monetary leverage, and would corrupt the non-profits themselves and their ability to carry out the missions for which people gave them funding.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oopsies on my @ 6 – pls read as “… such involvement would both provide unfair advantages for candidates with such monetary leverage…”

  8. Konradius says

    To me, the most interesting thing that could come from this is not even the fact that those churches get taxed.
    It is that they will have to give the IRS their actual finance information, including such things as how much they actually give to charity and the like.

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