Atheist Lawsuit would Force Churches to Report to the Government

An atheist group has taken direct aim at the free exercise of religion, attempting to subject churches to the rule of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), enabling the exact kind of targeting experienced by tea party groups under President Obama. A Washington, D.C. church is fighting back, defending the central constitutional principle that religious freedom is not subject to the whims of government control.

"This is nothing more than just a naked attempt to harm churches and religion because FFRF believes that religion is bad," Erik Stanley, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), told PJ Media on Monday. His organization filed a motion to intervene on behalf of New Macedonia Baptist Church in the case NonBelief Relief v. David J. Kautter.

NonBelief Relief sued Kautter, acting commissioner for the IRS, in October. The IRS had revoked the organization's tax-exempt status after NonBelief Relief refused to file a Form-990 for the third year in a row. The IRS requires non-profit organizations to submit the form — which documents the internal finances and efforts of the organization in question — every year, unless the organization is a church or other religious body.

It seems natural that NonBelief Relief might demand the same exemption given to churches should also apply to them, but that's not what they argue for in this lawsuit. Instead, they claim that churches should not be exempt. They support the Form-990 so much, they want everyone to have to fill it out, and they'll protest by not filling it out until they can force everyone to fill it out. Make sense?

Stanley, the ADF lawyer, connected the dots. First, NonBelief Relief is effectively an arm of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a notorious atheist group that consistently targets religious speech and exercise in the public square.

"They created this non-profit organization, NonBelief Relief, for the sole purpose of launching this lawsuit, and it's because they don't have a comparable 'church' that they can argue should be exempt," Stanley explained. Indeed, FFRF took aim at the church exemption in the 2014 case Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Koskinen. When that case was dismissed, FFRF created NonBelief Relief in 2015.

While the plaintiff in this case is legally distinct from FFRF, ADF argues in its motion that "Nonbelief and FFRF are essentially one and the same," because: "Nonbelief's sole member is FFRF; its presidency is specifically reserved for FFRF's president; FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor currently serves as Nonbelief's president; FFRF co-president Dan Baker serves as vice-president; FFRF's director of operations doubles as Nonbelief's secretary and treasurer; and certain FFRF board members make up the entirety of Nonbelief's board."

NonBelief Relief sued the IRS in the Washington, D.C. district court, attempting to force the IRS to require D.C. churches to provide Form-990s to keep their tax-exempt status. ADF filed the motion so that a church could be able to defend itself in court.

"This really is a broad-based attack against religion," Stanely explained. "Their true motive is not to gain equality by having non-church organizations also be exempt. The true motive here is to harm churches and religion by requiring them to fill out these intrusive reporting requirements."

Among other things, the Form-990 reveals a group's income and expenses; its assets, liabilities, and net worth; the total of contributions received and the names and addresses of all substantial contributors; and the names and addresses of its foundation managers and highly compensated employees, along with compensation and other payments to those workers.

If FFRF succeeds, it would involve "government intruding itself into the internal affairs of the church," Stanley said. If the case would be extended outside of D.C. — clearly FFRF's plan — then "every church would be required to prepare and file an annual tax return with the government."

This is a fundamental assault on the very idea of freedom of religion. "Our constitutional structure is based on not having churches report to the government, not having churches ask for permission to exist," the ADF lawyer told PJ Media. "What if a church has to fill out a 990, but it objects for religious reasons? Can the government shut it down?"

Churches also enjoy a second exemption to the tax code. "If you're a non-profit organization, you have to apply for recognition," Stanley explained. "Churches are exempt from that requirement to apply first, and for good reason. Churches don't have to ask permission from the federal government to exist."

Yet FFRF has found "a backdoor way of changing that," Stanley argued. He paraphrased it: "We're not going to require churches to get permission to exist, but we are going to force them to report on their financial business to the federal government."

"I think it's always dangerous to put that information into the hands of bureaucrats," the ADF lawyer said. "We've seen examples with Tea Party groups where that could go wrong."

While liberals still insist the IRS targeting scandal was merely a bureaucratic snafu, Stanley insisted that "even the potential for targeting scandals or misuse of information can destroy the free exercise of religion."

The church tax exemption itself is not some privilege handed down by Congress in a "matter of legislative grace," the ADF lawyer argued. "This is a constitutional requirement: It keeps the government out of the internal affairs of the church. A church itself is the core of the free exercise of religion, so it should be protected more broadly."

Furthermore, the IRS has an 18-point test for what constitutes a church, including a requirement that it perform "sacerdotal functions," such as baptism, communion, weddings, or funerals, Stanley explained. Their exemptions make a great deal of sense, and are indeed a fundamental aspect of America's defense of the free exercise of religion.

FFRF should be ashamed of itself for this assault on the heart of the First Amendment. Then again, it should also be ashamed of itself for attempting to silence football coach prayer and Marco Rubio's Bible verse tweets. This disgusting attempt to subject churches to IRS control seems par for the course — but with more far-reaching consequences than FFRF's usual fare.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.