Poor Doug Shulman can’t catch a break. Even though he has officially departed from his role as Commissioner of Internal Revenue as of last week, now comes word that he has been sued by a group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation representing atheists.
The foundation accuses the IRS of failing to enforce the laws prohibiting tax-exempt churches and religious organizations from becoming involved in political campaigns. The Associated Press reported that the group filed suit Wednesday against Shulman and by extension the IRS. Indeed, the group has a point, as the IRS seems to have stopped investigating complaints against houses of worship that have urged their congregations to vote for one candidate or another.
Russell Renwicks, an IRS manager for the Mid-Atlantic region, said last month that the agency had suspended its audits of houses of worship suspected of violating federal restrictions on political activity after a 2009 federal court ruling required the IRS to clarify which high-ranking official could authorize such audits. The IRS has not yet issued such a clarification, and hence no audits of religious institutions’ electioneering activities reportedly have been conducted in recent years.
Indeed, the IRS has found itself in the cross-hairs of religious groups that have advocated for their right to endorse political candidates on First Amendment grounds. The annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday is held around election time, and many pastors took the opportunity to weigh in on the Presidential race, practically daring the IRS to crack down on their activities. The IRS has declined to do so, and now it is being sued by an atheist group.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, argues that the IRS is failing to enforce electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and of the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s equal protection rights.
Up to 1,500 members of the clergy reportedly violated the electioneering restrictions on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, the legal complaint noted. The complaint also references “blatantly political” full-page ads by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association that ran for the three Sundays leading up to the presidential elections.
The FFRF, a state/church watchdog group based in Madison, Wis., is asking the federal court to enjoin IRS Commissioner Shulman from continuing “a policy of non-enforcement of the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations.” In addition, the FFRF is seeking to order Shulman “to authorize a high-ranking official within the IRS to approve and initiate enforcement of the restrictions of Section 501(c)(3) against churches and religious organizations, including the electioneering restrictions, as required by law.”
Somebody should tell the FFRF, though, that Shulman has officially left the helm of the IRS and his post is now occupied by Acting Commissioner Steven T. Miller. It’s not likely that Miller would welcome the lawsuit either, but then legal complaints are par for the course when you’re running an agency of the federal government.