Conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch announced Monday it has brought another lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service, attempting to obtain release of documents about the criteria the agency used to scrutinize churches for tax-exempt status.
Judicial Watch filed a suit under the Freedom of Information Act, trying to force the IRS to turn over documents pertaining to a settlement it made with an atheist group called Freedom from Religion Foundation. That group had sued the IRS, alleging the agency failed to police prohibited political activity by churches.
As part of the settlement with the atheist group, which fights for separation of church and state, that group said the IRS had promised to look at specific churches and to reevaluate criteria used by the IRS to determine when evaluations should be executed.
Judicial Watch petitioned the IRS for documents about the settlement, and in the lawsuit announced Monday said it is doing so on behalf of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that describes itself as a defender of religious rights.
The religious rights group is upset that the atheist group pressured the IRS about ads ahead of the last presidential election that cited church teachings against abortion and same-sex marriage, and ads by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, led by the family of the charismatic preacher who lives in Montreat, N.C.
“It is an honor for Judicial Watch to represent Alliance Defending Freedom, which is so effective as a protector of the First Amendment, which recognizes the truth of God-given rights of Americans to both freely exercise their religion and participate in politics,” Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said in a statement announcing the suit. “The IRS is using a lot of energy to cover-up details of its illicit targeting of churches.”
Judicial Watch cited a June 27, 2014, IRS letter to the Justice Department, in which the IRS said it had targeted 99 churches it said merited “high priority examination” for allegedly illegal electioneering activities. This church-targeting was determined by an IRS “Political Activities Referral Committee.”
The IRS has drawn fire conservative organizations since admitting in May 2013 that inappropriately subjected tea party groups and other conservative groups to extra scrutiny from 2010 to 2012 when they applied for tax-exempt status.
Graham’s group, run now by his son Franklin, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama in May 2013, saying it believed it was among those unfairly targeted by the IRS. The group purchased ads during the 2012 presidential campaign asking voters to cast ballots “for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles.”
Eventually after the election the Graham’s group had its tax-exempt status affirmed by the IRS, but the federal agency had agents in its office inspecting the books.
“I am bringing this to your attention because I believe that someone in the (Obama) administration was targeting and attempting to intimidate us,” Graham wrote to Obama at the time, the Charlotte Observed reported on May 15, 2013. “This is morally wrong and unethical - indeed some would call it 'un-American.’”