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.
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.”
Wagenmaker called it strange that the IRS singled out Planned Parenthood for protection from these small grassroots groups. “That is like the elephant being concerned about a mosquito,” she said. “I’d love to see an application from a Planned Parenthood to see if the IRS asked them, ‘Do you counsel on pro-life issues?’”
The IRS did not just pursue local groups advocating for life. Established national faith-based organizations promoting traditional marriage found themselves in the agency’s crosshairs.
Franklin Graham wrote a letter to President Obama on May 14 claiming the IRS last year targeted the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse. The groups bought ads in the spring of 2012 supporting a North Carolina amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and ads before last November’s elections asking citizens to “vote for Biblical values.” Last fall, the IRS notified the ministries that the agency would review their tax records.
“This is morally wrong and unethical—indeed some would call it ‘un-American,’” Graham wrote. “Unfortunately, while these audits not only wasted taxpayer money, they wasted money contributed by donors for ministry purposes as we had to spend precious resources servicing IRS agents in our offices.”
The Biblical Recorder, a Baptist newspaper in North Carolina, received its first IRS audit in its 180-year history in March after publishing ads supporting the state’s marriage amendment.
James Dobson’s Family Talk Action Corporation filed a form seeking 501(c)(4) approval in the fall of 2011. The group’s attorneys spent 19 months following the request. On March 19, 2013, an IRS agent told a Dobson attorney that the exemption status would not be granted because Dobson had criticized President Obama. According to Alex McFarland, a senior Dobson advisor, the IRS agent said Dobson was not producing content that was educational or presented all viewpoints. When Dobson’s attorney threatened litigation, it took the IRS nine days to grant the tax-exempt status.
The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) suspects that someone at the IRS leaked confidential donor information to a rival advocacy group in the heat of last year’s elections. The group receiving the information, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), calls itself the nation’s largest LGBT organization. HRC’s head, Joe Solmonese, soon became a co-chair of Obama’s reelection campaign. Touting the information as never-before-seen, HRC published NOM’s donor data on its website in March 2012. The list of names included then presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“Not only has Romney signed NOM’s radical marriage pledge, now we know he’s one of the donors that NOM has been so desperate to keep secret all these years,” Solmonese said at the time.
Publication of the list led gay-marriage groups to push for boycotts of the donors’ businesses. A forensic specialist hired by NOM determined that the leaked document originated from the IRS after uncovering a redacted IRS watermark that only appears in documents in the agency’s internal computer system. NOM is filing a lawsuit to discover who is behind this illegal breach of information that is punishable by up to five years in prison.
“I remind people that the abuse of the IRS for political purposes was one of the charges of impeachment that had been drawn up against Richard Nixon before he resigned back in 1974,” said John Eastman, NOM’s chairman. He added that some of NOM’s major donors are reluctant to continue giving if their personal information can’t be kept private.
Eastman recognized that the pro-life groups, the traditional marriage groups, and the Tea Party groups all are guilty of being on the wrong side of the Obama administration.
Wagenmaker, who specializes in representing nonprofits before the IRS, said the agency historically zeros in on money issues and the misuse of donations. Are the nonprofit leaders paying themselves, getting insider deals, or making loans with contributions?
“These things are natural for the IRS to be a watchdog for,” she said. “But now the IRS is asking about people’s message. As long as the IRS is charged with regulating political speech there are going to be problems.”
Wagenmaker has worked on four cases where the IRS has conducted viewpoint profiling. The big question many social conservatives are asking in the aftermath of the IRS’ overreach: How many sprouting local groups did not have the resources to break through IRS roadblocks? How many no longer exist or can’t expand or were silenced because they were put on a watch list and couldn’t fight IRS muscle? As Martinek with the Iowa pro-life group says, “Trying to fight the IRS can squash your hopes.”
Capitol Hill lawmakers are getting daily phone calls from constituents who oversee conservative groups wondering whether viewpoint discrimination is at the heart of recent IRS audits and delays.
While Lois Lerner, the IRS official in charge of the tax-exempt division, refuses to testify before Congress and goes on paid administrative leave, lawmakers are trying to discover who made the decisions that led to the abuses at one of the most maze-like bureaucracies in bureaucratic Washington.
“What we first heard always stretched credibility,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who described the IRS as a place where people seek signatures and counter-signatures for paperwork. “I mean, employees at ground zero of the federal bureaucracy going rogue? I’m willing to bet there’s still a lot more we’ll discover.”
Lawmakers continue to express ire that government officials did not inform Congress sooner. IRS leaders knew as early as 2011. Federal investigators had possession of internal IRS emails detailing the practices last July. Republicans are dismayed that Lerner, the person at the center of the scandal, had been tapped to lead the IRS’ new administrative duties under the trillion-dollar Obamacare program. In implementing what has been called the largest set of tax law changes in more than two decades, the IRS will gain expanded powers to gather information, monitor compliance, and impose fines for a new healthcare system that already has amassed about 20,000 pages of regulations. The IRS is asking for nearly 2,000 full-time employees for its Obamacare office.
Back in Texas, McCoy’s Christian Voices for Life coordinates activities with about 20 area churches representing several denominations. Roughly 1,000 people at two locations participated in the group’s most recent life chain event. They stood alongside high-volume highways on a Saturday afternoon holding signs with messages like “Jesus Forgives and Heals” and “Abortion Kills Children.” Occasionally a person stopped, confessed to having had an abortion, and asked for prayer. This fall McCoy will begin a program for training area teenagers on how they can help friends who are experiencing crisis pregnancies or suffering from past abortions.
Meanwhile in Cedar Rapids, participants with the Coalition for Life of Iowa go to a Planned Parenthood site every week to pray. Martinek’s own preferred prayer time is Wednesday nights when there is a teen clinic. It is something she wouldn’t have been able to do if she had given in to the IRS.
With the money raised as a nonprofit, the Iowa coalition from more than 15 area churches has expanded its offerings. It holds educational forums on such topics as stem-cell research and end-of-life decisions. And, several times a year, hundreds of coalition members gather at a local church. Carrying signs, they march a mile along busy First Avenue toward Planned Parenthood. Once there, they spread out along the front of the building and pray. Sometimes they hear testimonies. Sometimes they wave to the people passing. Sometimes they write messages in chalk on the sidewalk: Jesus Loves You. Life. Often they draw a cross beside the words. That’s about as confrontational as the coalition gets. They don’t obstruct Planned Parenthood’s parking lot or entrance.
Martinek likes to think they have been effective. She said local abortions have gone down 37 percent in the last three years. The local Planned Parenthood office has reduced its hours. After the rallies and prayers the coalition members do what many groups in middle America do: head over to the local pizza joint. They did not have to report that activity to the IRS.
Samaritan's Purse and Billy Graham Evangelical Association
Details of conflict: Ran ads in the spring of 2012 supporting a North Carolina amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and ads before last November's elections asking citizens to "vote for Biblical values"; audit began last fall.
Iowa Right to Life
Status: Applied in October 2008, approved after legal intervention
Details of conflict: Asked to provide advertisements, schedules, syllabuses, handouts, a summary of each person's speech, a letter from the coalition's board pledging, under the threat of perjury, that they would not organize pickets or protests against the local Planned Parenthood chapter.
James Dobson's Family Talk Action Corporation
Status: Applied in fall 2011, approved after 19 months and an initial denial
Details of conflict: An IRS agent told a Dobson attorney that the exemption status would not be granted because Dobson had criticized President Obama
Cherish Life Ministries
Status: Recently denied
Details of conflict: Told it didn't qualify as a nonprofit organization because it was a political organization
National Organization for Marriage
Status: Lawsuit being filed by NOM against IRS
Details of conflict: Claims the IRS leaked the group's confidential tax documents to the pro-homosexual Human Rights Campaign
The Biblical Recorder
Status: Audited for the first time in 180-year history
Details of conflict: Audit came after the paper published ads supporting the state's marriage amendment
Status: Lawsuit pending after 2.5 years
Details of conflict: Told it may be assigned to "a special unit in the D.C. office to determine whether the organization's activities contradict the Administration's public policies"
Christian Voices for Life
Status: Applied in 2010, approved after legal intervention
Details of conflict: Asked by the IRS "do you education on both sides of the issues in your program?"