Two suits challenge tax code favoritism for churches

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

This month, two separate lawsuits were filed claiming that the Internal Revenue Service unconstitutionally favors religious organizations and churches over other non-profit organizations. On Dec. 20, American Atheists announced that, along with two state organizations, it has filed suit in a Kentucky federal district court challenging numerous provisions that advantage religious non-profits.  The complaint (full text) in American Atheists, Inc. v. Shulman, (ED KY, filed 12/20/2012), alleges that churches and many religious organizations are not required to submit an application for a Section 501(c)(3) exemption or pay the fee for applying that is imposed on other non-profits; they are not required to make annual informational filings on Form 990 with the IRS; special procedures need to be followed before civil tax examinations are instituted for churches and religious organizations; and churches are able to take advantage of the parsonage exemption. Plaintiffs allege that this violates the establishment clause and denies them equal protection of the laws. They also claim that this violates the religious test prohibition in Art. VI, Sec. 3 of the Constitution because “501(c)(3) entities are public Trusts.”

Meanwhile, this week the Freedom From Religion Foundation, announced a new lawsuit (filed along with one of its local affiliates) challenging the exemption for churches and affiliated organizations from filing an application to obtain non-profit status, paying a filing fee and from filing annual reports on Form 990.  The complaint (full text) in Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Miller, (WD WI, filed 12/27/2012), claims that these exemptions violate the establishment clause and plaintiffs’ equal protection rights. FFRF has previously filed suits challenging the parsonage allowance and the IRS’ non-enforcement of electioneering restrictions against churches. (See prior postings 1,  2). Friendly Atheist blog reports on both of this month’s cases. [Thanks to Scott Mange for the lead.]