Atheists and Christians Do Battle Over Right to Talk Politics from the Pulpit

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Here’s a fight we have never seen before: Americans from opposite ends of the political spectrum fighting over the separation of church and state, the size of government, God’s business in politics, and what it is OK to do, or not do, with our tax money.

The latest battle was waged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin-based atheist group which sued the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in December 2012 over its failure to police churches engaging in illegal “electioneering” — sometimes straight up telling parishioners who to vote or not vote for.

The group, which has been reporting churches illegally preaching politics for years, settled with the government agency July 17, after it became “satisfied” that the IRS would “resume doing its job.” But that, of course, angered religious groups across the country, which have filed their own legal actions and accused the agency of signing “a secret pact with atheists.”

But while the FFRF hailed the settlement with the agency as a “victory,” the IRS is not about to start auditing “rogue” churches quite yet.

The government agency has recently come under fire after allegations that it has profiled conservative groups seeking tax exemptions, deliberately subjecting them to increased scrutiny. As a result, all of its audits, of churches or other groups, are currently on hold while a Justice Department investigation is under way.

“The main point of our lawsuit was to force the IRS to go back to enforcing its own law, we are satisfied that the IRS intends to do that,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF told VICE News. “But of course what’s unsatisfactory right now is that everything’s on hold because of the congressional Tea Party probe. Nothing’s happening right now on any front with the IRS.”

But a number of churches and conservative groups are also trying to make sure that nothing happens with the IRS anytime soon.

In December 2013, a small Milwaukee-based church, Holy Cross Anglican Church, filed a motion to intervene in the FFRF suit, which was granted. Days after the FFRF and the IRS settled last month, however, the church filed and lost an opposition to the FFRF’s motion to dismiss its lawsuit “without prejudice” — meaning the group could restart the lawsuit if the IRS fails to act.

Also following the settlement, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian group, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for details of the IRS exchanges with the FFRF. The ADF did not respond to VICE News’ questions.

A spokesman for the IRS declined to comment on either the settlement itself or the FOIA request. But the group behind the lawsuit accused conservatives of unleashing an unfair “witch hunt” against the agency.

“The religious right is all wrong as usual, either they’re trying to say that our victory is a defeat or they are busy saying that we’re in cahoots with the IRS, which is just a fantasy,” Gaylor said. “We were suing the IRS, they are not in cahoots with us.”

Vicar Patrick Malone, the Holy Cross Anglican Church’s pastor named in the suit, did not respond to VICE News’ calls and emails, but the group was represented legally by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a DC-based pro-religion group whose clients include Hobby Lobby.

“The FFRF was trying to force the IRS to censor churches’ speech and Father Malone and Holy Cross Anglican Church felt that they had a religious obligation to say the things that the FFRF wanted censored,” Daniel Blomberg, a legal counsel for the fund, told VICE News. “For instance, Father Malone believes that he has a duty to preach on the issue of the sanctity of human life and the need for his congregants to stand up for people who can’t speak for themselves, both the very, very young and the very old, and these issues can sometimes have political implications and direct political connections.”

But preaching on issues like abortion during elections, or even endorsing candidates, critics said, would essentially turn churches into PACs.

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SOURCE: Alice Speri
Vice