IRS Gives Partisan Churches a Pass, Group Says

     MADISON, Wisc. (CN) - The IRS is costing the government $100 billion a year by refusing to enforce nonprofit rules on churches, but allowing the tax-exempt institutions to violate federal tax law by engaging in partisan advocacy, the Freedom From Religion Foundation claims in court.
     The foundation sued IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman in Federal Court.
     It claims the IRS' closing of its eyes to church political proselytization violates the Establishment Clause and the Freedom From Religion Foundation's equal protection rights.
     Through lack of enforcement, the IRS demonstrates "government preferences and favoritism toward religion" according to complaint.
     The foundation has repeatedly complained to the IRA about this in letters. For instance, in a Nov. 6 letter to the IRS, it cited a statement by the Catholic Bishop of Madison, that "No Catholic may, in good conscience, vote for 'pro-choice candidates."
     The statement was in an article that Bishop Morlino wrote in the Diocese's official news organ, the Catholic Herald, according to the complaint.
     The Bishop of Peoria, Ill., Daniel Jenky, compared President Obama to Hitler and Stalin, in a homily delivered at his cathedral, the foundation complained in another letter to the IRS.
     And the bishop of Green Bay, Wisc. warned his parishioners that voting for a pro-choice candidate, or one who favors same-sex marriage "could put your own soul in jeopardy," the foundation complained in another letter to the IRS.
     In its federal lawsuit, the foundation claims: "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."
     It adds: "Open and notorious violations of the electioneering restrictions of §501(c)(3) by churches and other religious organizations have been occurring since at least 2008, with churches recording their partisan activities and sending the evidence to the IRS."
     The foundation claims that churches and other nonprofits "blatantly and deliberately" violated the electioneering restrictions of §501(c)(3) during this presidential election year.
     Bishop Jenky required that his partisan letter be read by every celebrating priest in his diocese to congregants the weekend before the recent presidential election, according to the complaint.
     The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association ran "blatantly partisan full-page ads" in the Wisconsin State Journal, and paid for similar ads in The New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and "more than a dozen national and battle ground state newspapers" before Election Day this year, the foundation says.
     "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," the foundation said in a statement.
     "Although an IRS spokesman claimed Renwicks 'misspoke,' there appears to be no evidence of IRS inquiries or action in the past three years."
     It states in its complaint: "The preferential tax exemption that churches and other religious organizations obtain, despite noncompliance with electioneering restrictions, amounts to more than $100 billion annually in tax-free contributions made to churches and religious organizations in the United States.
     The foundation says there are several factors in determining unlawful electioneering by the tax-exempt organizations: "(a) whether the communication identifies one or more candidates for a public office; (b) whether the communication expresses approval or disapproval of one or more candidates' positions and/or actions; (c) whether the communication is delivered close in time to an election; (d) whether the statement makes reference to voting or an election; and (e) whether the issue addressed in the communication has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office."
     The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims more than 19,000 members, describes itself as a nonprofit that "advocates for the separation of church and state and educates on matters of non-theism."
     In its lawsuit, it asks that the court order Shulman to initiate enforcement of the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations.
     It also seeks injunctions against any churches or religious organizations that are violating the restrictions.
     It is represented by Richard Bolton with Boardman & Clark.