Atheist Group Fights Religious Executive Order

President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Rose Garden of the of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 4, 2017, asking the IRS to use “maximum enforcement discretion” over the regulation, known as Johnson Amendment, which applies to churches and nonprofits (AP Photo/Evan Vucci).

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Thursday to challenge President Donald Trump’s executive order allowing religious organizations and other nonprofits to support political candidates without risk of losing their tax-exempt status.

“What is very concerning to us is that Trump is signaling to the IRS and to politically-active churches that the law does not apply to churches… churches are above the law, and they aren’t – that’s what this lawsuit is about,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, said in a phone interview Friday morning.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, or FFRF, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that advocates for the separation of church and state, filed a lawsuit Thursday in Madison federal court against President Donald Trump and IRS Commissioner Josh Koskinen, the same day the executive order was signed.

“This financial threat against the faith community is over,” Trump said Thursday. “No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

The president signed the “promoting free speech and religious liberty” order in the Rose Garden during a National Day of Prayer ceremony with religious leaders. On Wednesday night, he hosted a White House dinner for members of his evangelical advisory board.

“He’s getting all kinds of brownie points from the religious right,” Gaylor said. “He had assembled all of the usual suspects and given them dinner the night before and apparently met with Catholic Bishops and they had the prayers in the Rose Garden, and he’s clearly pandering to what he considers to be his base, the religious right.”

FFRF says in its lawsuit that the executive order “privileges religion over nonreligion” in violation of equal-protection and free-speech rights. The group wants the court to declare that it gives preferential treatment to churches and halt the IRS from implementing it.

“Among many faults, the EO requires the IRS to selectively and preferentially discontinue enforcement of the electioneering restrictions of the tax code against churches and religious organizations, while applying a more vigorous enforcement standard to secular nonprofits,” the complaint states.

Trump’s order targets the Johnson Amendment – sponsored by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson in 1954 – that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

Earlier this year, Trump vowed to “get rid of and totally destroy” the amendment, which would require Congress’ approval.

FFRF settled a lawsuit against the IRS in 2014 for its failure to enforce the Johnson Amendment, and it considers Thursday’s lawsuit a continuation of that effort.

“The President’s EO attempts to do something for which he has no constitutional authority: selectively veto a legitimate statute that Congress passed and the President signed into law more than 50 years ago,” the lawsuit states.

In addition to doing away with the rule that says religious organizations and other nonprofits that endorse political candidates risk losing their tax-exempt status, the executive order also allows religious organizations to opt out of providing birth control under the Affordable Care Act.

FFRF has over 28,000 members across the nation, including more than 1,400 in Wisconsin, and is represented by Richard Bolton of Boardman & Clark in Madison.

The group successfully challenged the constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer in the same court it filed Thursday’s suit in, but the decision in its favor was overturned by the Seventh Circuit in 2011.

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