Is the IRS Failing to Uphold the Separation of Church and State?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is suing the IRS because it says the IRS has suspended auditing thousands of churches and is failing to enforce a ban on church electioneering.

The suit, filed Wednesday with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, claims that there is evidence the IRS is not doing enough to prevent churches and religious institutions from directly and “blatantly” engaging in political messaging which, the suit says, is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and, interestingly, of the FFRF’s equal protection rights.

As evidence for this, the FFRF points to remarks made by Russel Renwicks of the IRS’ Tax-Exempt and Government Entities division, wherein Renwicks said the IRS has suspended tax audits of churches.

“We are holding any potential church audits in abeyance,” Renwicks is quoted as saying by Bloomberg in an October piece. The piece goes on to clarify that there may be a “few” cases of “egregious” electioneering but “even those are in abeyance until IRS finalizes rules.”

An IRS spokesperson has since said that Renwicks misspoke.

“The IRS continues to run a balanced program that follows up on potential non-compliance, while ensuring the appropriate oversight and review to determine that compliance activities are necessary and appropriate,” said spokesman Dean Patterson.

The FFRF says it is unconvinced and is prepared to prove that the IRS may not have audited churches since 2009. It points to a number of very recent cases to further support the suit.

The group charges that evangelist Billy Graham’s ministry engaged in blatant electioneering when it took out a number of advertisements urging fellow believers to vote with biblical principals in mind. Just days before, Graham and his son had met with the Romney campaign to discuss said principles.

Other cases include that of Green Bay Bishop David L. Ricken who wrote to churchgoers warning that if they voted for candidates who supported abortion or marriage equality, they “could be morally ‘complicit’ with these choices which are intrinsically evil.” He went on to say, “This could put your own soul in jeopardy.”

The FFRF also sent a letter over Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., who reportedly wrote in a Nov. 1 article that there were some “non-negotiable” political topics.  He said, “No Catholic may, in good conscience, vote for ‘pro-choice’ candidates [or] . . . for candidates who promote ‘same-sex marriage.’”

Yet in this case and several others, the IRS has failed to respond, even so far as investigating the alleged acts.

The IRS’ perceived failure to enforce the electioneering ban amounts to giving churches and religious organizations preferential treatment over other non tax-exempt groups like the FFRF, the suit argues.

“Churches and religious organizations obtain a significant benefit as a result of being non-exempt from income taxation, while also being able to preferentially engage in electioneering, which is something secular tax-exempt organizations cannot do.”

The FFRF contends that as many as 1,500 clergy may have also violated electioneering restrictions on Sunday, October 7, 2012, when they held ”Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

However, a lawsuit is precisely what was wanted by the group behind the event, the Alliance Defending Freedom (which, before re-branding, used to be the notorious anti-gay, anti women’s rights Alliance Defense Fund).

Reports the Washington Times:

Erik Stanley, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said a lawsuit is exactly what his group was looking for when it launched the Pulpit Freedom Sunday initiative in 2008 to challenge the Johnson Amendment, the part of the tax code that requires nonprofit groups not to engage in political speech as a condition of that status.

Still, he doesn’t think this particular case will go far.

“I think the lawsuit itself really borders on frivolous. I don’t know how the FFRF can claim they’ve been harmed by the IRS’ refusal to enforce the Johnson Amendment,” Mr. Stanley said. “But, on the chance it does, then we will seek to protect those churches.”

The Johnson Amendment refers to a 1954 change in the U.S. tax code which prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The ADF, however, says it infringes religious organizations’ freedom of speech.

As such this case, as well as being used as evidence that the IRS has not moved to investigate church politicking, could be an important test case for the Johnson Amendment which is seen as highly important in preserving a separation between Church and State.


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Image credit: Thinkstock.


Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin5 years ago

I wish the FFRF wins the suit and all religious institutions that chose to violate, not only the law, but the Constitution, will start paying (back) taxes on all the millions they swindle out of their congregations! Noone can have the cake and eat it too. Either you stick with preaching your different religious beliefs OR you become political, taxpaying organizations!

Lynn C.
Lynn C5 years ago

Separation of church and state?? That went down the tubes years and years ago - if we ever really had it...

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown5 years ago

By the way Jefferson letter to the Danbury Baptists was written in 1802 and the First Amendment was adopted in 1791. That is an 11 year difference. Hardly what one would call something wrote in Jefferson's "later years."

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown5 years ago

Yes, the letter to the Danbury Baptists was Jefferson (who wrote the First Amendment with James Madison) describing what it did, in that it created a "wall of separation between church and state." The First Amendment, and its separation of church and state is certainly in the constitution. Its purpose was just what Jefferson said it was. I am sorry that you don't like it, but that does not change reality.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill5 years ago

Our founding fathers had no intention for religion to be out of government. What they said was that the government was to stay out of our religion. "Separation of church and state" is not in our constitution, it came from a personal letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in his later years.

Decobecq Brigitte
Decobecq B5 years ago


Thank you for this article.

Article 18 from Human Rights Act :

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion... Then, this is a "crime" to vote "with biblical principals in mind", nobody must be telling something...

Where is Freedom ? Conscience and Religion are most valuable. Politic is just politic. If Martin Luther King, Gandhi... have not spooken to people, where will be our civilization right now. The change are not coming from political area.

Money is a tool to enslave people and organizations, and this is a "hiden" goal of this lawsuit

Teaching moral values to numerous people is the way to save our civilization from oblivion.

Beth M.
Beth M5 years ago

Go FFRF! I believe that it is time for churches to pay their fair share of taxes like the rest of us.

Susan Allen
SusanAWAY A5 years ago

Susa Whealtey M. writes " Remember, if churches are no longer tax exempt, you'll start finding their money in EVERY political lobby you can imagine, which means they'll have way more say in new legislation and public policy. Is that what you WANT?" Frankley, Susa, I believe these churches and clergy are way too greedy to give up their tax exempt status. I expect they will fight this for years and do what they can to hide their political action.

Susa Whealtey M.
Susan Maxfield5 years ago

Remember, if churches are no longer tax exempt, you'll start finding their money in EVERY political lobby you can imagine, which means they'll have way more say in new legislation and public policy. Is that what you WANT?

Louise S.
Louise S.5 years ago

Why would any church want to hide their records ? Doesn't take much thought to figure it out. This is the OPPOSITE of what they teach. They have become so RICH and Powerful with Hidden Assets, Stock Market Shares, while the People have to plead for Donations of Clothes and Food to feed the poor and needy. It is worse than when Jesus stormed into the temple and shouted,"You Have Made The House Of God A Den Of Thieves. . It has only gotten worse. I think any Church, T V Ministry should have to give up their Tax Free Status who refuse to open their books,