Atheists, Believers, IRS in a Tizzy
OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) - The IRS settlement with the Freedom From Religion Foundation regarding the IRS investigation of tax-exempt churches that preach politics from the pulpit is "alarming," the Oklahoma Attorney General said in letters to federal officials.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the IRS in Madison, Wisc. Federal Court in 2012. The atheist group claimed the IRS policy of refusing to prosecute churches that engage in political speech on Pulpit Freedom Sunday violated the Johnson Amendment of 1954.
That lawsuit was settled in July after the IRS agreed to no longer have a "blanket policy" of non-enforcement, the Freedom From Religion Foundation said.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt voiced his disapproval of the settlement on Tuesday in letters to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
Pruitt asked for more information about the settlement and said he feared that citizens' First Amendment rights were in danger.
Pruitt claimed that the Freedom From Religion Foundation is "unabashed in its desire to destroy that right, and the fact that this organization has not entered into an agreement with your agency - an agreement that they call a 'victory' for their cause - is alarming."
Pruitt also asked for copies of communications between the agency and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and documents outlining the policies and procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations.
Pruitt noted that Oklahoma tax law cross-references federal tax laws in several instances, including the application of an organization's federal tax-exempt status.
"If federal policy regarding religious organizations' eligibility for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) has changed, so as to make it more difficult for religious organizations to maintain such status, the State of Oklahoma needs to be made aware of such changes, so that it can ensure that state law adequately represents the State's longstanding policy of vigorously protecting freedom of religion and freedom of speech," Pruitt's letters said.
Pulpit Freedom Sunday is sponsored by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious advocacy group that it urges pastors to "exercise their constitutionally protected freedom to speak."
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," Stanley 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."
Federal officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday evening.
The IRS is still reeling from allegations it targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Conservative advocacy group Freedom Path, 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.