July lawsuit settlement with atheist group, IRS admits monitoring churches for allegedly illegal political activity
(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch announced today that on November 6, 2014, it filed a Freedom of Information (FOIA) lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seeking “any and all records” relating to the agency’s “monitoring of churches and other tax exempt religious organizations” for alleged political activity. The lawsuit also seeks communications between the IRS and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) concerning such alleged political activities. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Judicial Watch v. Internal Revenue Service (No. 1:14-cv-01872).
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 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 Judicial Watch lawsuit, filed after the IRS failed to respond to an August 4, 2014, FOIA request, seeks the following:
Any and all records concerning, regarding, or related to communication between the IRS and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) on the promotion of political issues, legislation and candidates by churches and other tax exempt religious organizations; and
Any and all records concerning, regarding, or related to IRS monitoring of churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations to ensure that such organizations are not engaging in the promotion of political issues, legislation and candidates.
The Wisconsin-based FFRF, which describes itself as “an effective state/church watchdog and voice for … atheism, agnosticism, skepticism,” trumpets the IRS agreement as an “IRS Victory!” on its website homepage. Another victory touted on the atheist group’s homepage is a purported success entitled, “FFRF erases bible quotes from Mo. school’s whiteboard.”
In its 2012 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.
“As expressed by the First Amendment, Americans have the God-given right to both express their religious views and to engage in the political process,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “It is troubling that the IRS seems set to rely on a group of atheists to point them toward churches that might have criticized politicians. And it is even more disturbing that the IRS would violate federal law, The Freedom of Information Act, in order to keep secret its monitoring of Americans praying together in church. To be clear, the very IRS that abused Tea Partiers for Obama’s election now purports to be able to ‘audit’ houses of worship in order to protect politicians from criticism. I am sure the Obama administration is more than happy to use the excuse of a lawsuit by a leftist group to use the IRS to punish churches that oppose Obama’s war on religious freedom.”