Back in 2018, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed an important lawsuit against the IRS after the government revoked the tax exempt status of its charity “Nonbelief Relief,” which had given away more than $590,000 over the past several years to assist disaster recovery efforts, help atheists trying to escape oppressive regimes, and support groups like Doctors Without Borders.
For the years prior to 2018, Nonbelief Relief chose not to file its Form 990s. Those are the documents all non-profits are supposed to submit to the IRS, documenting income, expenses, major donations, salaries, etc. It’s the tool non-profit watchdogs like Charity Navigator use in order to “grade” groups on whether they’re acting ethically and responsibly.
Why did Nonbelief Relief not file the paperwork? Because they wanted to see what the IRS would do about it. And in August of 2018, the IRS sent a letter to FFRF saying that Nonbelief Relief’s tax exemption was being revoked — a move that would seriously curtail donations to the organization since contributions would no longer be tax-deductible.
FFRF said they were being punished for something churches do all the time without consequence. Indeed, a number of megachurches are able to hide their pastors’ salaries from the public — including their own congregations — because they don’t have to submit these forms.
But why should churches, and not charitable atheist organizations, be allowed to get away with this lack of transparency? FFRF said the IRS decision was a form of state-sponsored hypocrisy that favored religion. They sued the IRS over it, demanding that the tax exemption for Nonbelief Relief be reinstated or that the IRS start treating all non-profits equally.
That entire case was thrown out last week.
U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly dismissed it, in part, because he said he doesn’t have the authority to confer an exemption to the organization, and also because “NonBelief Relief faces no current or future prospect of having to fill out a Form 990.”
That latter concern is bizarre. He’s saying Nonbelief Relief doesn’t have to file a non-profit tax exemption (the 990) anymore, so they have no business complaining about it… even though that’s the crux of the lawsuit.
FFRF isn’t buying it either.
“This circular reasoning would bar any group from challenging preferential treatment of religious organizations,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, who is administrator of Nonbelief Relief and FFRF co-president. “We are so distressed that Nonbelief Relief is in limbo, and unable to help others on behalf of freethought in a world fraught with natural disasters, hunger, displaced people and discrimination that is often religion-based. This injury extends far beyond just the loss of Nonbelief Relief’s tax-exempt status.”
FFRF says it will refile its challenge after Nonbelief Relief “jumps through some legal hoops.” That could mean re-registering as a non-profit in order to have standing to sue… which brings us back to the original concern: Why does FFRF have to do all these things that faith-based organizations can skip?
It didn’t make sense back then. It still doesn’t now. The law currently favors religion. Full stop. FFRF says it’ll keep fighting until the IRS treats non-religious and religious groups equally.
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)