David Silverman, president of American Atheists, addresses the Reason Rally on March 24, 2012 on the National Mall in Washington. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

Atheists lose court battle with IRS

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(RNS) A federal court has dismissed three atheist groups' suit against the IRS, 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."

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, addresses the Reason Rally on March 24, 2012 on the National Mall in Washington. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, addresses the Reason Rally on March 24, 2012, on the National Mall in Washington. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.



  1. The AA loss should be evaluated in the context of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wins on the same issues.

    The FFRF has filed 3 separate suits on church electioneering, church exemption from filing Form 990, and the tax exempt ministerial housing allowance.

    In each case, the FFRF has been granted “standing” while in the AA case the AA was denied “standing”.

    The Judge in the AA case had a lot to say about the FFRF case involving the ministerial housing allowance wherein the federal district court ruled the law UNconstitutional. That case is currently pending before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

    It is my opinion that, for all the whining, the AA folks simply picked a losing litigating strategy. It would do well to join with the FFRF as amici next week when the FFRF files its final appeal brief. Other amici, no doubt, will also be joining with the FFRF to ask the 7th Circuit to sustain the district court’s ruling.

    The other FFRF cases are still pending at the district court level.

  2. The success or failure of atheism is not really the point. The plaintiffs lost because they couldn’t prove any economic harm they were suffering was the fault of the IRS. The court found that they could have applied for an exemption as other non theistic organisations have. And the claim that such an application would be rejected was deemed invalid as it hadn’t actually been tested.

    Interestingly, the court also rejected the argument that applying for the exemption (as a religious organisation) violated the principles of atheism. In effect their response was that the terms of the exemption were semantically broad enough in meaning to potentially include those of no particular faith.

    It’s not clear whether the primary motivation for this suit was to advocate for the equal rights of atheists, or to highlight the comparative lack of disclosure afforded to religious groups. So the broader question is whether any organisation, religious or not, should be exempted from such disclosure and why?

  3. It will always be difficult to prove a negative assertion. But then the onus is not on us anyway.

  4. It was over before it started. Only you seem to have missed that fact.

  5. Atheism is ONLY about belief.

    The Atheist only says “I do not believe in God”
    It is NOT a claim the God is impossible. Atheists simply see no reason to believe in God yet. Atheism is just an opinion – not a ‘statement of a claim.’

    The Agnostic says “I do not KNOW if god exists”
    The Agnostic is necessarily a non-believer. Most agnostics admit that on the matter of belief they are ATHEIST.

    The THEIST says: “I know God exists, I know which God is true and I KNOW what God wants of me.”

    Nobody should be a Theist unless they are prepared to explain how they know all those things.

  6. “The Atheist only says “I do not believe in God”
    It is NOT a claim the God is impossible”

    Hi Max. It’s worth noting the pluralism of belief which exists amongst atheists. Some do argue that God is impossible, whilst others are simply of the opinion that the reverse has yet to be proven. I also disagree that:

    “Nobody should be a Theist unless they are prepared to explain how they know all those things.”

    Being a theist is not necessarily about knowing all those things in any absolute sense, let alone being able to adequately explain them to a third person. In one sense, being a theist is a journey of discovery rather than an arrived at position of complete knowledge. For example, I have a personal relationship with God based on personal experience, prayer, regard for wisdom from scripture, and a degree of faith. I accept that for a third person (e.g. an atheist) only the objectively provable is relevant whilst the intangible experiences of another are not. But I don’t think it follows that my inability to convey the totality of my experience disqualifies me from being a theist.

    “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadow for those who don’t.”
    ― Blaise Pascal

  7. @Rashid, M.

    Hi. I understand.
    But There is no valid argument FOR a god. I have not heard one yet.

    And until I see a reason to believe, I can’t believe the claim.
    Equally important is this: There is appears to be no harm in NOT seeing god. Non believers have extremely honest and wonderful lives. This is something for which there is abundant evidence.

    For example: I cannot prove that Leprechauns are not real. But I do not need to prove it. There is no evidence for Leprechauns and more importantly, there is no apparent benefit in believing in the Leprechauns.
    What is the motivation to ‘pretend’ (have faith) when there isn’t any benefit for doing so?

    God appears to serve no identifiable purpose to society.
    Faith appears to serve no purpose either.

    There are some Atheists called “hard atheists” who argue that “there is no God”. This is about as important as someone who says “there are no Leprechauns.”

    I don’t see a reason to claim things I do not know.
    I have said ‘there is no god’ as matter of argument because if there is no reason to believe in a god one can say we are not yet at a point to confirm a god. Who knows? but more importantly, ‘Who cares and why should they?”

    But I have always insisted that GOD is Possible. Atheism is an opinion.
    Theism does not strike me as ‘an opinion’ since Priests reaffirm their ‘faith’ regularly and most people with opinions do not feel the slightest reason to do any such thing.

  8. “God appears to serve no identifiable purpose to society.
    Faith appears to serve no purpose either.”

    This is a very broad topic but speaking for myself, and the reason I care, is that God and faith serves the purpose of answering the fundamental questions of my life and death. Where did everything come from? Why am I here? How should I be? Where am I going? etc. But like I said, my own faith is not rooted just in ‘textbook reasoning’, though that does have its place and purpose. My faith is challenged and reaffirmed as I journey through my life because neither my knowledge nor my experience is static. And as my faith is reaffirmed, so are my opinions. As the founder of the community I belong to noted:

    “Search for God is a difficult matter. Observation of the heavens and the earth and reflection of the perfect orderliness of the universe only leads to the conclusion that the universe should have a creator, yet it is not a proof that such a Creator exists. There is a difference between ought to be and is. The first duty of a person, therefore, is to acquire certainty with regard to the existence of God … How can this certainty be acquired? It cannot be acquired through mere stories. It cannot be acquired through mere arguments. The only way to acquiring certainty is to experience God by having conversation with Him or by witnessing His extraordinary signs.” – Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad(as), founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

  9. Rashid, M.,

    Again, I understand what you are trying to say. For me the beauty of the night sky is like poetry, like music; i would not trust someone who was not capable of appreciating the numinous and awe inspiring reality of the Cosmos.
    If God exists and if he is good and if he is merciful and if he is infinite – fine. He won’t mind if I cannot believe in him.

    I find that Love, curiosity and joyful work are enough. Religion does not answer anything for me. Culture, literature, music, art, and most of all PEOPLE themselves mean much more than old ancient books full of commitments and hierarchies.

  10. “If God exists and if he is good and if he is merciful and if he is infinite – fine. He won’t mind if I cannot believe in him.”

    If in your heart you can’t then I’m quite sure he’ll be fine with that. He only asks people to follow their conscience, not believe against it. But that’s a matter for you and Him – I have no say in it.

  11. Right. If he is infinitely merciful he must forgive me for being a non believer. If not, that is my problem. But i have no fear about it.
    Which is why it doesn’t matter if god exists or not. I don’t believe in it. And I behave more respectfully of other people since dumping all of religion completely. We are only people, living finite lives on a finite planet. For goodness sake, let’s love and enjoy each other’s company and live under the golden rule until we are gone.

  12. Obviously you wont fear what you don’t believe in. My point was simply re the criteria by which I believe you will be judged – i.e. not what you do or don’t believe, but what your conscience knows and learns, and what you do or don’t do accordingly. Whilst I share your opinion on treating each other with love in this world, the difference between us is the belief (or lack of) in an ultimate consequence, i.e.judgement by God.

  13. Rashid,
    Then there is no difference between us. Since God might judge me harshly and you much better it will only happen in the afterlife. We are still the same while we are here on earth.

    The human laws against atheists are unfair. All of them.

  14. Yes it is over Max. You thought it was okay when Obama’s IRS went after Christians and conservatives. You didn’t mind that at all.

    But now you’ll find out that Obama and his IRS are so messed up in the brain, that they’ll even try to persecute you ATHEISTS!!

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