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Lack of church tax audits results in lawsuit by atheist group

During the recent election cycle, there were ongoing reports of churches in Minnesota and elsewhere taking political positions and preaching politics from the pulpit. This is an equal opportunity occurrence with groups from a variety of religions.

And yet despite this so-called religious electioneering, there have not been any IRS audits challenging the nonprofit status of these religious groups. An atheist group has challenged this situation and filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that the Internal Revenue Service is violating the Constitution by allowing tax-exempt churches and religious organizations to get involved in political campaigns.

Sources revealed that the group filing the lawsuit, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, files lawsuits on a regular basis to highlight violations of the separation between church and state. The IRS lawsuit is part of that effort.

According to the group and other sources, there have been blatant violations which could result in the loss of nonprofit status worth thousands of dollars per church and perhaps $1 billion or more nationwide. The obvious violators include:

  • Evangelist Billy Graham pledged to do "all I can" to help a specific candidate.
  • A bishop in Illinois read a statement which urged parishioners to vote based on the sanctity of life or they would be viewed as rejecting Jesus as their Lord.
  • "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" has been held nationally since 2008 and now includes about 1,500 pastors who endorse a candidate from the pulpit and send a record of their endorsement to the IRS.

Based on reliable sources, it seems as though these partisan efforts exist on both sides of the aisle and that everyone is looking for the IRS to take action. Protestants, Catholics, atheists and others are urging the IRS to act.

Should a church or other religious institution receive a notice from the IRS about an audit, the organization would be well advised to obtain experienced legal tax representation. Everyone seems to be looking for precedent to be set.

Source: CBS Minnesota, "Wis. Atheist Group Sues Over Religious Electioneering," Nov. 15, 2012

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