Court motions filed as atheist group sues for churches to file tax returns

E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, home to the US District Court for DC. Credit: Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock
E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, home to the US District Court for DC. Credit: Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock

.- The Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a motion to intervene after lawyers from the Freedom from Religion Foundation sued the IRS, arguing that churches should not be exempt from having to file tax returns and other forms with the IRS.

Currently, churches and religious institutions in the United States are tax exempt and do not have to file these forms.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation lawsuit, Nonbelief Relief v. Kautter, was filed with the District Court for the District of Columbia in October on behalf of Nonbelief Relief, Inc., which describes itself as “a humanitarian agency for atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and their supporters.” David Kautter, the acting commissioner of the IRS, was named as respondent to the suit.

The suit argues that allowing churches to be exempt from filing tax returns is a violation of the Establishment Clause, as it “results in obligations imposed on secular non-profits, including [Nonbelief Relief], that are not imposed on churches.”

On Monday, Nov. 26, attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom filed a motion to intervene on behalf of New Macedonia Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. The motion argues that the church would be greatly affected if it were forced to file tax returns, saying such a requirement would be “costly, time-consuming, and intrusive.”

The ADF argues that requiring churches like New Macedonia Baptist Church to file various IRS forms would take time, money, and energy away from other aspects of the church’s ministry in the community, including worship services, a food pantry, and youth outreach programs. Additionally, they argue, the forms would make potentially sensitive information, such as ministerial salaries and church donors, publicly available.

If the lawsuit were to be successful and the church refused to file forms with the IRS, it would lose its tax-exempt status and result in a “devastating” loss of income, the ADF said.

ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley criticized “activist groups with an axe to grind against religion,” and said that suits of this kind would themselves violate the First Amendment by unnecessarily entangling the government with religion.

“Requiring churches to file tax returns with the IRS places too much power—and too much sensitive information about church operations and finances—in the hands of the government. That’s why the First Amendment legitimately blocks any requirement that churches file such returns.”

The Supreme Court has consistently sided with churches on questions of government involvement in their operations. In the 1819 Supreme Court decision McCulloch v. Maryland, the court warned that “the power to tax is the power to destroy.” Since that ruling, the court has often ruled to keep government interference in religious institutions to a minimum.

Tags: IRS, Alliance Defending Freedom, Freedom from Religion Foundation, First Amendment