IRS Charged With Unfair Scrutiny of Pro-Life Groups' Prayer Events, Protest Signs
“When it rains, it pours” is an accurate description of the situation currently faced by the Internal Revenue Service, which is under intense criticism for denying tax-exempt status to conservative groups with the words “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names.
As if that wasn't enough, even though the national media are not drilling down on this, the IRS is now being accused of delaying the application process and seeking an enormous amount of minuscule details before granting nonprofit status to pro-life groups across the country.
When the Coalition for Life of Iowa sought tax-exempt status, the IRS asked its board to promise not to organize protests outside Planned Parenthood facilities and demanded to know how its prayer meetings and protest signs were educational.
Groups with tax-exempt status -- known as 501(c)(3) nonprofits -- must have educational, religious or charitable purposes and cannot be involved in elections or engage in substantial lobbying activity.
However, they can conduct educational campaigns about their causes that do not have to be balanced, and their members retain their constitutional rights to assemble and protest.
The IRS recently apologized for singling out conservative groups for intense scrutiny in 2010 and 2011, but Republicans now are using the coalition's case to question whether the effort may have been broader and started earlier.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said on Tuesday that the IRS was “out of bounds” in seeking information on the group's prayer activities and a guarantee that it wouldn't protest at Planned Parenthood:
It's outrageous that that statement would be made by anybody in government, that somehow you've got to compromise your First Amendment rights.
Along with the difficult hurdles the Iowa group faced, Christian Voices for Life of Fort Bend County in Texas faced similar obstacles in 2011, when an IRS employee asked members of the organization if it provided "education on both sides of the issues" in its programs and whether its members try to speak with anyone entering medical clinics.
Last week, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) said that the Iowa and Texas groups faced unfair IRS intrusion into their activities because of “political and religious bias” that chilled their constitutional rights.
Both pro-life organizations received tax-exempt status after seeking help from the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal organization, and counsel Sally Wagenmaker.
Sue Martinek, the Iowa group's preseident, explained that the organization considers its mission to be to educate citizens about "the sanctity of life," and it has held forums on issues such as stem-cell research and euthanasia. Members also routinely walk and pray outside the Planned Parenthood facility in Cedar Rapids.
After Martinek submitted the application for tax-exempt status in October of 2008, an IRS employee from the Cincinnati office responded in April 2009 that she needed more information about its events, including all “advertisements, schedules, syllabuses, handouts, a summary of each person's speech” and more.
The coalition turned over those records, including Catholic writings opposing embryonic stem-cell research and cloning and brochures handed out at events, including one that accused Planned Parenthood of promoting promiscuous behavior.
In follow-up calls, the IRS official said the application would be approved if board members promised in writing that the organization would not protest outside a Planned Parenthood site.
Martinek said she and the others in her group were ready to sign such a statement, but one board member saw it as a violation of their right to free speech and contacted the Thomas More Society.
Wagenmaker sent the agency official a letter stating that the inquiries were legally improper and called for the IRS to grant the application promptly.
She stated that the coalition had organized one event to pray the rosary at Planned Parenthood and that members otherwise assembled there peacefully on their own, carrying signs with such messages as “Women Deserve Better Than Abortion” that do not contain graphic images.
A few days later, the IRS sent its approval notification.
“It was a little weird, and it seemed like they wanted lots of information, but we wanted our status,” Martinek said. "The IRS is so powerful, we were just hesitant to get on their bad list.”