I get it. Life isn’t fair. Filing taxes is the worst. I can understand American Atheists, Inc.’s frustration that they’re filing a return as a non-profit organization while the church down the street has no such obligation. Just like when someone has that toy that you want, it’s human nature to want it too. But when, instead of asking for a turn, you try to burn the toy on the altar of, um, Khan, well, that’s just superdickery.
That’s basically the argument in American Atheists, Inc., et al. v. Shulman. It’s not “we should be able to have the filing benefits of a church,” but “churches shouldn’t get any of the cool filing statuses.”
The actual ruling on the case came down to the American Atheists not having standing, which is not an issue on the tax side of the fence, so I’ll pass on explaining it in depth (lawyers, feel free to comment below). But basically the Court asked, “why didn’t you apply as a religious organization to get the same benefits as a church?” To which the American Atheists answered that it would violate their “sincerely held beliefs to seek classification as a religious organization.”
The Court wouldn’t have any of that, pointing to the following case:
“When a person sincerely holds beliefs dealing with issues of “ultimate concern” that for her occupy a “place parallel to that filled by … God in traditionally religious persons,” those beliefs represent her religion.” Kaufman v. McCaughtry, 419 F.3d 678, 681–682 (7th Cir. 2005)
They also mentioned several other cases indicating religious organizations “do not necessarily require a theistic or deity-centered meaning. So according to the law, there’s nothing that states an atheist group couldn’t be considered a religion and receive preferential tax treatment.
The American Atheists came back and said the IRS wouldn’t have recognized them as a religion even if they had filed as one. To which the IRS replied that “atheist and non-theist organizations may be eligible for treatment as religious organizations or churches under the I.R.C” (this, like every other statement by the IRS, is required to be read in a robotic monotone).
To sum it up, the Court said that the American Atheists should have at least bothered to try to file under the tax preferred status before they threw a court case fit about it being unfair.
Just to finish things up, here was my favorite line from the case: “Though the Atheists’ argument under the Equal Protection clause is not entirely clear, either way it is presented, the Atheists cannot establish an Equal Protection claim.” Ouch. Judge Bertelsman, that’s pretty harsh.
(Again, I’m not a lawyer. If you lawyery types want to fight over the legal mumbo jumbo about why the court was right or wrong, feel free to tell me all about it. I promise to read at least every third word.)
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