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Photo illustration: Krieg Barrie

Agent exegesis

IRS Scandal | The IRS targeted more than Tea Party groups for special investigations. The agency also went after religious, pro-life, and pro-marriage groups, holding up tax-exempt status for months and even seeking details about group prayers

Issue: "Rejecting religious liberty," June 15, 2013

WASHINGTON—Susan Martinek founded Coalition for Life of Iowa because she wanted the pro-life movement to do bigger things in Cedar Rapids. Churches in the town of about 120,000 already held their own events, but Martinek thought coordinating resources would lead to greater outreach. The small-business owner sought tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service in October 2008. Like the head of most fledging nonprofits, she knew more donors would be inclined to give if they could claim tax deductions.

Martinek mailed the application and waited. In April 2009, the IRS asked for more information, including “advertisements, schedules, syllabuses, handouts, a summary of each person’s speech.” After complying with this exhaustive record request, Martinek called the IRS on June 6, 2009.

An agent told her to submit just one more item for approval: a letter with signatures from every member of the coalition’s board pledging, under the threat of perjury, that they would not organize groups to picket or protest outside of the local Planned Parenthood chapter.

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Martinek’s board debated the demand. Some agreed to sign. Others refused, saying it was a violation of their First Amendment rights. On June 22, the group received an IRS letter with more requirements: “Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood are considered educational,” the letter read. “Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings.” The IRS asked for the “percentage of time” the group spent in prayer and to explain how signs were educational.

Martinek didn’t know what to do, and the group didn’t have enough money for an attorney. “You don’t hear about people fighting the IRS and winning,” she said. “I didn’t want the IRS to be upset with me, and they are just so powerful you don’t expect them to back off.”

The fallout from the recent government report outlining the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups has focused on Tea Party organizations. According to the report, the IRS used improper  and potentially unconstitutional criteria to scrutinize groups seeking tax-exempt status. Innocuous application phrases such as groups seeking “to make America a better place to live” triggered IRS red flags that led to delays, denials, and audits. In the best apology he could muster, Steven Miller, the outgoing acting IRS commissioner, called those actions “horrible customer service.”

But such “service” also ensnared religious groups like the Coalition for Life of Iowa. “When the government starts talking about people of faith as people that need to be scrutinized more because of the negative implications they can have against the government, that ought to be frightening to most Americans,” said U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., the chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

In Sugar Land, Texas, Marie McCoy started Christian Voices for Life in 2010. Trying to save money, she filled out the IRS tax-exempt application herself. As with the Iowa group, the IRS asked for more material. McCoy wondered why the agency didn’t ask for all the necessary information in the application. She suspected the IRS was slow walking her request, overwhelming her with cumbersome demands designed to discourage her from pressing her case. An IRS letter dated March 31, 2011, asked: “do you education on both sides of the issues in your program?” It didn’t even use correct English. But grammar was the least of McCoy’s concerns.

“If you are trying to advocate against smoking, does that mean you have to explain what the benefits of smoking are?” McCoy asked.

She reached out to a national pro-life organization, and they put her in touch with the Thomas More Society—a Chicago-based public-interest law firm. Attorney Sally Wagenmaker took the case.

In order to gain tax-exempt status, organizations have to be charitable, educational, religious, or some combination of the three. In 1980, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that groups didn’t have to present both sides of an issue to qualify for tax-exempt status. Educational communication can be brief and emotionally compelling, the court ruled. But in these pro-life applications the IRS pursued a narrower test that included delving into the content of the groups’ message.

“It is very strange that the very entity that’s supposed to be enforcing the laws doesn’t know what the law is,” Wagenmaker said. “I don’t think the IRS is supposed to be deciding what’s constitutional and what’s not.”

Soon after Wagenmaker took the cases for both the Christian Voices for Life and the Coalition for Life of Iowa, the IRS withdrew its demands and approved the groups for tax-exempt status. The board for the Iowa coalition never signed a statement promising to avoid picketing in front of the local Planned Parenthood. “It’s fortunate,” said Martinek with the coalition, “because we have people go over there regularly to pray. We are not so much about protesting, but we didn’t want to sign away our rights.”

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