The watchdog group Judicial Watch announced that it has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to obtain the release of documents regarding the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) recent decision, following a lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, to reevaluate criteria for determining whether churches and other nonprofit organizations can claim tax-exempt status. The IRS also suggested that it may initiate investigations into church activities (Alliance Defending Freedom v. Internal Revenue Service (No.1:15-cv-00525)). Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
Judicial Watch filed the lawsuit after the IRS failed to comply with ADF’s July 22, 2014, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking release of the following documents:
(1) All documents related to any existing, proposed, new, or adopted procedures for church tax inquiries or examinations from January 2009 to the present.
(2) All documents related to proposed or adopted changes to Treasury Regulations §301.7611-1 from January 2009 to the present.
(3) All documents related to new IRS policies or procedures referenced in FFRF’s July 17, 2014 press release.
ADF filed the FOIA request after an announcement by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) that, in settling a FFRF lawsuit, the IRS had promised to begin looking into specific churches and other groups for potential violations of tax law, and to reevaluate IRS’ criteria for when such evaluations should be executed.
The IRS stalled the release of records for months, most recently promising to produce records by March 31, 2015.
Judicial Watch’s filing states:
As of the date of this complaint, Defendant has failed to: (i) determine whether to comply with the request; (ii) notify Plaintiff of any such determination or the reasons therefor; (iii) advise Plaintiff of the right to appeal any adverse determination; and/or (iv) produce the requested records or otherwise demonstrate that the requested records are exempt from production.
Judicial Watch separately sued for documents about this alleged IRS abuse last year.
In 2012, the FFRF filed a lawsuit alleging that the IRS had routinely ignored its complaints about churches promoting political candidates, issues or proposed legislation. In its complaint, FFRF alleged that 1,500 clergy members violated electioneering restrictions on Sunday, October 7, 2012. The atheist group has specifically cited church teachings against abortion and same-sex marriage as being in violation of the law. It also cited what it termed “blatantly political” full-page ads running in the three Sundays leading up to the presidential elections by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. But the FFRF abruptly dismissed its IRS lawsuit after a church, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, intervened in the lawsuit to challenge the IRS’s alleged authority to “revoke a house of worship’s tax-exempt status, and levy fines against churches and individual leaders, when religious leaders are deemed to say things that the IRS does not allow.” Alliance Defending Freedom and other religious rights organizations have challenged directly the notion that the federal government can restrict the speech of pastors.
In July 2014, the IRS announced that, according to the terms of an agreement reached with the FFRF, it had been monitoring churches and other houses of worship for electioneering and other political activity. According to June 27, 2014, IRS letter to the Justice Department, the IRS has targeted 99 churches it said merited “high priority examination” for allegedly illegal electioneering activities. This church-targeting was determined by an IRS “Political Activities Referral Committee.”
The Wisconsin-based FFRF, which describes itself as “an effective state/church watchdog and voice for … atheism, agnosticism, skepticism,” trumpets the IRS agreement at issue as an “IRS Victory!” on its website homepage. Another victory touted on the atheist group’s homepage is apurported success entitled, “FFRF erases bible quotes from Mo. school’s whiteboard.”
“The IRS has no business threatening churches on behalf of the anti-religious crusaders at Freedom from Religion Foundation,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “The IRS must come clean, be accountable to the American people, and reveal the details of the secret deal it cut with the atheist group. The IRS pattern of unlawfully using its power to target and punish ideological opponents and hiding information that Americans have a right to know must end immediately.”
“It is an honor for Judicial Watch to represent Alliance Defending Freedom, which is so effective as a protector of the First Amendment, which recognizes the truth of God-given rights of Americans to both freely exercise their religion and participate in politics,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “The IRS is using a lot of energy to cover-up details of its illicit targeting of churches. Violating FOIA law comes at great taxpayer expense.”