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First Amendment Freedoms Threatened by IRS Proposal, Say Newman Society, Religious Groups

Christopher Elliot

Catholic Education Daily - published on 03/04/14 - updated on 06/07/17

But the regulation of unions was curiously left out of the discussion.

The Cardinal Newman Society, Focus on the Family and other religious organizations joined this week with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to urge the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to withdraw a proposal that would “create very serious constitutional burdens on the First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and speech” of Catholic schools, colleges and other religious nonprofits.

The IRS caused a political firestorm last year when it was revealed that the agency singled out some conservative nonprofit organizations for scrutiny. In response, the Treasury Department proposed regulations to clarify acceptable political activity for 501(c)(4) non-profit organizations, which are membership associations that often engage in lobbying.

The proposed IRS regulations, however, would also “dramatically narrow the scope of permissible activities for 501(c)(3) organizations,” according to the ADF letter. A 501(c)(3) organization is typically focused on educational or religious programs and is already prohibited by law from engaging in political activity and significant lobbying efforts.

“Pastors, churches, and exempt educational institutions, from elementary and high schools to colleges and universities, would not be allowed to hold candidate forums under the proposed regulations even though those forums are valuable ways for citizens to evaluate the candidates running for office,” argues the ADF. “In addition, pastors or college officials could not even refer to an upcoming election to encourage their congregation to exercise their responsibility to vote without running afoul of the proposed regulations.”

Under the proposed regulations, elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities might not be permitted to have voter registration tables on campus or permitted to host “candidates” as commencement speakers. The definition of a “candidate” would include elected officials if they are considered a presumptive candidate for the next election.

“Overall, the regulations prohibit a wide array of speech and religious activities that are currently permissible,” the letter states. “Prohibiting such speech and religion violates the constitutional rights of 501(c)(3) organizations.”

The letter also notes that it is curious that the Treasury Department and the IRS have left 501(c)(6) groups, such as unions, out of the discussion entirely.

The signatories on the ADF letter agree with the Treasury Department and the IRS that greater clarity is necessary concerning what constitutes political activity by exempt organizations. “In fact, we believe that the current 501(c)(3) political activity prohibition is unconstitutional and severely restricts the First Amendment rights of numerous exempt organizations. The proposed new regulations, in essence, seek to ‘double down’ on the unconstitutionality of the current regulations,” the letter states.“Thus, they should be withdrawn in favor of a better approach that grants much-needed clarity in this area.”

Reportedly, the IRS has received thousands of comments concerning this proposal. A bill was introduced in the House of Representatives seeking to block the rule from taking effect, but the Obama administration has already stated they would veto any bill that would block the proposed rule from becoming policy.

The complete list of groups signing on to the public comment includes:

Alliance Defending Freedom as a 501(c)(3) organization that legally represents numerous churches and pastors and other 501(c)(3) organizations.
Focus on the Family as a 501(c)(3) organization
The Cardinal Newman Society as a 501(c)(3) organization
The Family Action Council of Tennessee, Inc., David Fowler, Esq., President
Florida Family Policy Council, Inc., John Stemberger, President
Minnesota Family Institute, John Helmberger, CEO
Colorado Family Institute
Indiana Family Institute
The Family Leader, Bob Vander Plaats, President and Chuck Hurley, VP and Chief Council
Pennsylvania Family Institute, Michael Geer, President
Palmetto Family Council, Oran P. Smith, PhD, President
New Jersey Family Policy Council, Len Deo, Founder &President
New Yorker’s Family Research Foundation, Rev. Jason J.McGuire, President
Wisconsin Family Council, Julaine K. Appling, President
Citizens for Community Values, Phil Burress, President
Christian Education League of Maine
Cornerstone Family Council, Julie Lynde, Executive Director
Family Institute of Connecticut, Peter Wolfgang, Executive Director
Maryland Family Alliance, Derek McCoy, President
California Family Alliance, Jonathan Keller, Executive Director
North Dakota Family Alliance, Tom Freier
Delaware Strong Families
Cornerstone Policy Research
Massachusetts Family Institute
Montana Family Foundation
The Family Foundation
Missouri Family Policy Council

Courtesy of Catholic Education Daily of the Cardinal Newman Society

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