Citing the “blatantly political” full-page ads Billy Graham ran endorsing Mitt Romney for president last month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for not enforcing rules barring churches and other religious organizations and non-profits from endorsing candidates. The Johnson Amendment, established in 1954 by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, prohibits 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
“The Freedom From Religion Foundation is taking the Internal Revenue Service to court over its failure to enforce electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations, calling it a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and of FFRF’s equal protection rights,” the Foundation states via a press release on its website:
FFRF filed the lawsuit today in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. (View the lawsuit here.)
A widely circulated Bloomberg news article quoted Russell Renwicks, with the IRS’ Tax-Exempt and Government Entities division, saying the IRS has suspended tax audits of churches. Other sources claim the IRS hasn’t been auditing churches since 2009. (See AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll’s story, “IRS Not Enforcing Rules on Churches and Politics.”) Although an IRS spokesman claimed Renwicks “misspoke,” there appears to be no evidence of IRS inquiries or action in the past three years.
As many as 1,500 clergy reportedly violated the electioneering restrictions on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, notes FFRF’s legal complaint. The complaint also references “blatantly political” full-page ads running in the three Sundays leading up to the presidential elections by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association.
FFRF, a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., is asking the the federal court to enjoin IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman from continuing “a policy of non-enforcement of the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations.”
As The New Civil Rights Movement reported in June, the University of Tampa found that tax-exempt religious organizations are subsidized by the U.S. government — meaning, you and me — to the tune of $71 billion each year. As a rule, religious organizations and many of their their employees — such as ministers, priests, rabbis, etc. — can be exempt from paying local, state, and federal taxes, income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, investment taxes, etc.
“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all IRC section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and religious organizations, are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” the IRS notes. “Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise tax.”
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