The Internal Revenue Service has reached a lawsuit settlement agreement with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, agreeing to investigate churches that violate a federal law that activist groups often cite in an attempt to silence them by threatening their tax-exempt status.
"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," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement last week, following which the Alliance Defending Freedom asked the IRS to release all documents related to it.
The lawsuit, Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Koskinen, accused the IRS of failing to investigate churches the way the atheist group would like. Despite the agreement, only a court has the jurisdiction to close down the case.
Gaylor added: "Of course, we have the complication of a moratorium currently in place on any IRS investigations of any tax-exempt entities, church or otherwise, due to the congressional probe of the IRS. FFRF could refile the suit if anti-electioneering provisions are not enforced in the future against rogue political churches."
The FFRF release says the ADF annual "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" event promotes violation of the Johnson Amendment, which authorizes the IRS to regulate sermons and requires churches to give up their constitutionally protected freedom of speech in order to retain their tax-exempt status.
The ADF called the IRS-FFRF agreement yet another act of secrecy by the tax agency.
"Secrecy breeds mistrust, and the IRS should know this in light of its recent scandals involving the investigation of conservative groups," ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb said in a statement. "We are asking the IRS to disclose the new protocols and procedures it apparently adopted for determining whether to investigate churches. What it intends to do to churches must be brought into the light of day."
Last year, the IRS admitted to targeting Tea Party and other conservative organizations for tax-exempt status violations. Lois G. Lerner, former director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the IRS, told reporters that several organizations carrying the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their exemption applications were singled out by IRS agents for additional reviews between 2010 and 2012.
The IRS claims it is temporarily withholding investigations of all tax-exempt entities because of congressional scrutiny of its scandals, but the ADF says no one knows when it will decide to restart investigations based on any new or modified rules that it develops.
"The IRS cannot force churches to give up their precious constitutionally protected freedoms to receive a tax exemption," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley, who heads the Pulpit Freedom Sunday event. "No one would suggest a pastor give up his church's tax-exempt status if he wants to keep his constitutional protection against illegal search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment. Likewise, no one should be asking him to do the same to be able to keep his constitutionally protected freedom of speech."
This year's Pulpit Freedom Sunday will be held on Oct. 5. It's a fast growing movement that is associated with the Pulpit Initiative, a legal effort designed to secure the free speech rights of pastors in the pulpit. Some of the participating pastors also send their taped sermons to the IRS.