Atheists lose court battle with IRS

by Lauren Markoe - RNS |

A federal court has dismissed three atheist groups' suit against the Internal Revenue Service, in which they accused the tax agency of discriminating against nonreligious nonprofits.

American Atheists and its co-plaintiffs argued that tax filing requirements for nonprofit atheist groups are unfairly tougher than they are for religious nonprofits. They contended that churches and other religious organizations should have to meet the same standards that other nonprofits meet in disclosing information on their donors, employee salaries and other details about the organization.

"We're going to keep fighting," said American Atheists President David Silverman after the U.S. District Court in Kentucky handed down its decision Monday (May 19). "The court has upheld a prejudiced government practice."

The atheists had argued that the IRS violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and the right to due process, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. Generally, tax-exempt organizations must file a 990 financial form with the IRS, but religious and religious-related groups are exempted.

The court found that the atheists had no standing to bring the suit, in part because American Atheists could have applied to the Internal Revenue Service for designation as a religious organization, but never had. It's just speculation that the IRS would reject the application, the court wrote; in fact, the IRS has granted nontheistic groups status as religious nonprofits in the past.

"A review of case law establishes that the words 'church,' 'religious organization,' and 'minister,' do not necessarily require a theistic or deity-centered meaning," the court wrote.

The atheists held that to apply to the IRS for status as a religious organization would go against their principles.

The court wrote that the plaintiffs had failed to established that any concrete harm had come to them at the hand of the IRS. But the atheists had argued that they could raise far more money if they could tell their potential  donors — as religious organizations may — that their names do not have to be disclosed on documents available to the public.

The plaintiffs argued that the American government unfairly subsidizes religious organizations that do not have to prove they do anything to benefit the American people. That is special treatment that costs $71 billion in annual  tax revenue, the groups said.