IRS to Probe Churches That Preach Politics

     MADISON, Wisconsin (CN) - The Internal Revenue Service has agreed to investigate churches that use the pulpit to preach politics, settling a lawsuit by an atheist group.
     The Freedom from Religion Foundation sued the agency in federal court in 2012, alleging it did not go after churches who participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday due to an enforcement moratorium.
     The day is sponsored by Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious advocacy group that says it urges pastors to "exercise their constitutionally protected freedom to speak." The plaintiffs argued such political speech by non-profits is banned by the Johnson Amendment of 1954.
     The parties settled the lawsuit on July 17, filing a joint motion for dismissal. FFRP co-president Annie Gaylor hailed the settlement as "a victory."
     "We're pleased with this development in which the IRS has proved to our satisfaction that it now has in place a protocol to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions," she said in a statement. "Of course, we have the complication of a moratorium currently in place on any IRS investigations of any tax-exempt entities, church or otherwise, due to the congressional probe of the IRS. FFRF could refile the suit if anti-electioneering provisions are not enforced in the future against rogue political churches."
     Under the terms of the settlement, the IRS has prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis, but it will no longer have a "blanket policy" of non-enforcement, the group said.
     Erick Stanley, senior legal counsel for ADF, criticized the settlement.
     "The IRS cannot force churches to give up their precious constitutionally protected freedoms to receive a tax exemption," he said in a statement."No one would suggest a pastor give up his church's tax-exempt status if he wants to keep his constitutional protection against illegal search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment. Likewise, no one should be asking him to do the same to be able to keep his constitutionally protected freedom of speech."
     The ADF wants the agency to disclose more details about the settlement and what its specific plans are for enforcement of the Johnson Amendment.
     "Secrecy breeds mistrust, and the IRS should know this in light of its recent scandals involving the investigation of conservative groups," ADF legal counsel Christiana Holcomb said in a statement. "We are asking the IRS to disclose the new protocols and procedures it apparently adopted for determining whether to investigate churches. What it intends to do to churches must be brought into the light of day."
     Pulpit Freedom Sunday will be held this year on October 5, the ADF said.
     IRS officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon. The agency is still reeling from allegations it illegally targeted conservative groups seeking tax exempt status. Conservative advocacy group Freedom Path Inc., of Dallas, sued the agency in federal court in April, claiming its application for 503 (c)(4) tax-exempt status faced "additional and unconstitutional scrutiny" based on its policy positions.
     "Through an illegal scheme hatched and carried out by Internal Revenue Service officials acting under color of federal authority, a group of IRS employees pulled applications from conservative ideological organizations based upon their conservative names or policy positions, delayed processing those applications, and then made probing and unconstitutional requests for additional information," the lawsuit stated.