(Photo: AP / Morry Gash)
A District Court judge has given the go-ahead for a lawsuit by a Wisconsin-based atheist organization against the Internal Revenue Service regarding the enforcement of its church politicking ban.
Judge Lynn Adelman of the Western District of Wisconsin ruled Monday that the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison could proceed with a lawsuit against the IRS.
Adelman denied a motion by the IRS to dismiss the suit in part by concluding that the FFRF does indeed have standing, or the right to sue.
"To prove that he has standing to seek injunctive relief, a plaintiff must show that he is under threat of suffering 'injury in fact' that is concrete and particularized; the threat must be actual and imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; it must be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant; and it must be likely that a favorable judicial decision will prevent or redress the injury," wrote Adelman.
"The Foundation has shown all of these things. If it is true that the IRS has a policy of not enforcing the prohibition on campaigning against religious organizations, then the IRS is conferring a benefit on religious organizations (the ability to participate in political campaigns) that it denies to all other § 501(c)(3) organizations, including the Foundation."
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, said in a statement that the lawsuit was filed to help put an end to government favoritism to churches.
"The time for a free ride for churches is over…The rest of us pay so much more in taxes because clergy pay so much less," said Gaylor.
"If these churches - which are accountable to no one in government yet get so many favors - are allowed to engage in tax-exempt politicking, it would be the ruination of our democracy."
In 1954, Congress passed the Johnson Amendment. According to the amendment's language, tax-exempt entities, such as churches, cannot "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of – or in opposition to – any candidate for public office."
Critics of the Johnson Amendment, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, have argued that the rule effectively "muzzles" the free speech of clergy by threatening removal of their tax-exempt status should they endorse a candidate from the pulpit.
Every year, as a way of challenging the IRS' rules on church politicking, the ADF oversees an event called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," wherein they encourage pastors to preach about politics at their houses of worship.
While the Johnson Amendment was passed with the intention of securing church and state separation, many church-state watchdog groups including the FFRF have argued that the rule is rarely enforced.
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel at the ADF, told The Christian Post that while at present the IRS is not aggressively enforcing the rules, this could change at any time.
"It is seldom enforced as of now although that has not always been the case. The IRS has gone through ups and downs in its enforcement of the Johnson Amendment," said Stanley.
"It has chosen not to enforce in an aggressive manner for the last few years, but that can change quickly depending on who is at the helm of the IRS."
Regarding the FFRF lawsuit, Stanley told CP that the legal effort "should have been dismissed at a very early stage."
"The arguments it makes in the lawsuit are aimed at getting the government to exhibit hostility to religion," said Stanley.
"Because the power to tax involves the power to destroy, there is no surer way to destroy the free exercise of religion than to tax it. FFRF should lose its lawsuit."