Atheist group sues over religious electioneering

Associated Press Modified: November 15, 2012 at 12:01 pm •  Published: November 15, 2012
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal lawsuit filed by a Wisconsin-based group representing atheists and agnostics argues that the Internal Revenue Service is violating the U.S. Constitution by allowing tax-exempt churches and religious organizations to get involved in political campaigns.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation argues that churches and other religious organizations have become increasingly more involved in political campaigns, "blatantly and deliberately flaunting the electioneering restrictions."

Its lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Madison argues that the IRS is not enforcing the federal tax code, which prohibits tax-exempt religious organizations from electioneering. Not enforcing it is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment and a violation of equal protection rights because the same preferential treatment is not provided to other tax-exempt organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the lawsuit contends.

The lawsuit, which was filed against IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, asks that the court order Shulman to initiate enforcement of the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations.

It also asks that the IRS initiate legal action against any churches or religious organizations that are believed to be violating the restrictions.

Churches and religious organizations obtain a significant benefit from their tax-exempt status while also being able to engage in electioneering that other similar tax-exempt organizations do not do, the lawsuit argues.

A spokesman for the IRS in Wisconsin declined to comment.

The lawsuit cites full-page ads run this fall in the New York Times and other newspapers by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that featured a photo of renowned evangelist Billy Graham urging Americans to vote along biblical principles. Graham met in October with Mitt Romney and pledged to do "all I can" to help the Republican presidential nominee.

The lawsuit also refers to an order from Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., requiring all the priests in his diocese to read a statement urging Catholics to vote and stating that, "Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord."

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