- - Friday, August 15, 2014

Usually, the only link most Americans make between the Internal Revenue Service and their faith is the prayer they offer before beginning to fill out their tax returns. Now, though, the IRS seems interested not only in what you pay, but what your pastor says.

According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which had brought a lawsuit against the IRS for its supposed failure to adequately target churches with its Section 501(c)(3) electioneering restrictions, the IRS has agreed to settle the case on the condition that the agency will begin enforcing its regulations on what clergy can and cannot say in the pulpit. The IRS‘ own intrusion into average Americans’ lives over the past year apparently is not enough for the FFRF, which has embarked on its latest effort to increase the government’s speech-policing powers over the pastors of average Americans. That any organization — even the FFRF — is actually encouraging our government in its Orwellian efforts is unbelievable.

If this wasn’t troubling enough, secrets still swirl around this case.

While the FFRF characterized the termination of the case as a “settlement,” the case was actually dismissed after the IRS and the FFRF filed a joint motion to dismiss. However, parties usually don’t agree to the dismissal of their own lawsuit absent some concession from the other side.

In its brief supporting the motion, the FFRF cited newly “available information” and the IRS‘ now “apparent intent” to enforce its regulations to the FFRF’s satisfaction as reasons for supporting the dismissal. No litigator worth his salt, though, agrees to the dismissal of his own case based on “apparent” information and the other party’s informal assurances.

Well, which is it? Has the IRS changed procedures sufficient to satisfy the FFRF and induce it to dismiss its suit? Or has the FFRF voluntarily dismissed its suit after realizing it had nowhere to go with its groundless legal claims?

The FFRF’s less vague out-of-court claims shed some light on what may have actually occurred here. In a July 17 press release, the FFRF claims that the “[t]he IRS has now resolved the signature authority issue necessary to initiate church examinations,” and “has adopted procedures” regarding the same. On Aug 1, the FFRF issued another press release claiming a “victory” in which the IRS has “authorized procedures” to “resume initiating church tax investigations and examinations.”

These statements portend a more formal agreement between the parties. If such a settlement exists, it certainly must be disclosed. Any new “protocol” or “adopted procedures” implemented in secret without proper disclosures would not only be illegal, but incredibly alarming, given the IRS‘ recent track record on cover-ups and abuses of power. If there is no such settlement, then the FFRF has been issuing misleading statements in its press releases, which goes to the group’s credibility. The FFRF may also have finally realized it overplayed its hand, and is now exposed for the bully it is, pestering the government to meddle with pastors’ speech simply because it opposes their views. The fact that the FFRF can even get standing to sue and pester the courts with its many cases is a problem. If not, the organization would have more difficulty co-opting the judiciary in its self-righteous crusade against all manner of public religious expression. Indeed, many pastors and others engaging in public religious expression would be free from harassment if the FFRF could not complain to the courts every time it is offended by some form of speech.

This entire “settlement” smells funny and is rotten at the core. Churches and their pastors should be deciding what’s said in church, not the IRS (with or without the assistance of the FFRF). Moreover, if the IRS cannot be trusted with emails, why should we trust it to make decisions affecting cherished, constitutionally protected rights to free speech and free exercise of religion?

Regardless, none of this should be going on in secret — especially when it pertains to the scandal-plagued IRS, which needs more, not less, baby-sitting at this point.

We shouldn’t have to be reminded that the IRS is not above the Constitution, and that free speech and free exercise of religion are at the core of who we are as self-governing Americans. Other rights are not conditionally granted depending on tax status, and neither should the First Amendment. When the FFRF and the IRS finally realize this, and when the Supreme Court clearly holds that pastors have full First Amendment rights free from government-imposed conditions, Americans in our churches will finally be free from only those religious messages “approved” by the government.

Travis Weber is director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council.