IRS Accused of Operating ‘Behind a Veil of Secrecy’ in Probe of 99 Churches

Penny Starr | September 28, 2016 | 7:44pm EDT
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From left, Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., senior pastor at Hope Christian Church, Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, spoke at a press conference on Sept. 28, 2016. ( Starr)

( – Citing the Internal Revenue Service’s investigation of 99 churches for potential violation of laws restricting political speech, GOP and faith leaders held a press conference at the Capitol Wednesday to announce the introduction of a bill to restore free speech rights to all non-profits.

But when asked for details about the churches and potential violations, the answer was that the IRS has not revealed that information despite a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom and a federal lawsuit filed on their behalf by Judicial Watch.

“The IRS has chosen to operate basically behind a veil of secrecy,” Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for ADF, said at the press conference. “It has told atheist organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation that it has initiated investigations of 99 churches but has refused to inform us or the public or even the churches themselves who is being investigated and under what circumstances and for what potential violation.”

Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), a pastor for 30 years now serving his first term in the House, introduced the Free Speech Fairness Act of 2016 (H.R. 6195).

“From my personal experience the threat of the IRS to potentially take away tax exempt status is enough in and of itself to cause pastors and non-profits to self-censor themselves right out of the game,” said Hice. “And that’s what’s taking place.”

“The Free Speech Fairness Act of 2016 would address the shortcomings of the Johnson Amendment, which in 1954 was inserted into the tax code by Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) without floor or committee debate,” the Family Research Council said in a statement.

“The Johnson Amendment prohibits churches and non-profits from engaging in any activity that might be interpreted as participating in, or intervening in a campaign on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate for public office, including a simple oral or written statement.”

“Since the birth of our nation, pastors and churches have been at the forefront of shaping public debate and our choice of public servants,” FRC president Tony Perkins said at the press conference.

“What would America look like today had the Rev. Lyman Beecher, a leading abolitionist, or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. been muzzled by the IRS?”

A letter from the IRS concerning the investigation of the 99 churches was distributed at the event.

“Over a period of time, we identified the 99 churches as having potential impermissible political campaign intervention activities based on referrals received by our Exempt Organizations (EO) Examination function,” it says.

“The Political Activity Referral Committee (PARC), which consists of career civil service managers, reviews each referral and determines whether the case should be selected for further compliance review,” the letter continues.

Groups supporting the Free Speech Fairness Act of 2016 include Focus on the Family, The Heritage Foundation, Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability, March for Life Action, Liberty Counsel and Liberty Counsel Action, American Center for Law and Justice and the Home School Legal Defense Association.

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