IRS stonewalls coming clean on secret deal to investigate churches

Tax agency misses legally required Sept. 11 deadline to produce information
Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Attorney sound bites:  Christiana Holcomb  |  Erik Stanley

WASHINGTON – The Internal Revenue Service is stonewalling an Alliance Defending Freedom request that the federal tax agency produce documents related to a legal settlement in which it apparently adopted new protocols and procedures for the investigation of churches.

In response to the ADF Freedom of Information Act request filed in July, the IRS wrote in a recent letter that it will not respond until Sept. 29. That’s well after the amount of time it is allowed by law, even though the information ADF is requesting is the same information the IRS has already provided to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which struck a deal with the agency to end the lawsuit Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Koskinen.

“Secrecy breeds mistrust, and the IRS is the ultimate example,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “The IRS is stonewalling when all we are asking for is the same information that it already provided to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. We will continue to press the IRS to disclose what it is legally obligated to produce.”

In July, a Freedom From Religion Foundation press release announced it had reached a settlement with the IRS in its lawsuit against the agency. As the release revealed, “The IRS has now resolved the signature authority issue necessary to initiate church examinations. The IRS also has adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations.”

The IRS claims it is temporarily withholding investigations of all tax-exempt entities because of congressional scrutiny of its recent scandals, but no one knows when it will decide to restart investigations based on any new or modified rules that it develops. Because of that, ADF submitted its FOIA request on July 22, but the IRS has not been forthcoming.

Several members of Congress, at least one state attorney general, and a number of concerned organizations have also asked the IRS to come clean on its settlement with FFRF.

The FFRF press release mentioned the ADF annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” as a motivation for its lawsuit against the IRS, which urged the agency to enforce what’s known as the “Johnson Amendment” against churches. Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an annual event encouraging pastors to speak freely from the pulpit on the issue of candidates and elections. Currently, the Johnson Amendment authorizes the IRS to regulate sermons and requires churches to give up their constitutionally protected freedom of speech in order to retain their tax-exempt status. This year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday will be held on Oct. 5.

“The IRS cannot condition tax-exempt status on the surrender of a constitutionally protected freedom,” explained ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley, who heads the Pulpit Freedom Sunday event. “Churches don’t have to give up their freedom of speech to remain tax-exempt any more than they have to give up their protection against illegal search and seizure. Nonetheless, the IRS appears to be honing its procedures for monitoring sermons and performing additional audits. Americans deserve to know what the IRS is up to.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

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