IRS scandal and ‘easy’ religion ghosts

On a recent Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken remarked with interest on how many of the year’s major news stories have to do with religion. A cursory glance at the headlines proves it, year after year. But even the non-religion news stories frequently have religion angles.

And so it is with one of the scandals embroiling the Obama administration right now. IRS officials have admitted (via a cartoonish plot to plant a question in front of reporters) the agency wrongly targeted certain groups that had applied for tax-exempt status. Most of the news has focused on the surprising/appalling news that groups were singled out for scrutiny if their group hoped to be “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights” among other Tea Party-ish things. This being an egregious abuse of power, looks like we’re in for a long hot summer of getting to the bottom of just what he heck went wrong.

But there is a religion angle. Some reporters have conflated two separate issues. On the one hand, we know that the IRS was targeting groups applying for tax-exempt status. They’ve admitted it. On the other hand, we have many stories about the IRS scrutinizing groups (including religious groups) that already had tax-exempt status. These might be related stories but we’re really still in the fact-gathering stage of this scandal. So keep that in mind when you hear reports from hear and there about curious goings-on. Here’s an RNS report about religious groups that talked about scrutiny they’d faced.

At a hearing today about the initial issue, Rep. Aaron Shock asked IRS officials about why they had asked some groups to provide information about their prayer vigils. You can watch the 2:00 clip here, which includes the IRS official responding that he was unable to say whether this line of questioning was appropriate or not.

You can read the Thomas More Society’s documents or pro-life media for more on this story and why it’s important to the larger debate (e.g., the scrutiny of these groups began in 2009, earlier than the IRS claims its higher scrutiny of some groups began). I’m surprised we haven’t seen more mainstream media coverage of this angle.

But Yahoo had a good report which included the original language from the IRS. (And props to the Washington Examiner for having this story days before the hearing, with a solid report on the initial claims.) The Washington Post‘s Slate site had a fascinating spin on this that gets to the desire of some reporters to move on from the fact-gathering stage … and with less-than-ideal results. Reporter Dave Weigel says that the story may sound incredible, but ….:

Like I said, incredible — which when you think about it tells you how quickly the Overton Window has shifted. If you read the document trove, CFLOI ended up handing the feds documentation on stem cells, on the viability of life in the womb, etc. The IRS accepted this; the group got tax-exempt status. The scandal, obviously, is that there’s something inherently evil about inquiring into the “content of prayers.” But the agency was easily satisfied. The point of the story isn’t that Christianity is being oppressed in America.

I’d just encourage reporters to stick with the first job of explaining the whos and the whats and the wheres of the story. I mean, where do we get the idea that the IRS was easily satisfied? Seriously? Where does that come from? Because if you read the Thomas More Society’s side of things, that is precisely the opposite of what went on. Dramatically different, in fact. I don’t know how you could read their document dump and get that idea:

In one case, the IRS withheld approval of an application for tax exempt status for Coalition for Life of Iowa. In a phone call to Coalition for Life of Iowa leaders on June 6, 2009, the IRS agent “Ms. Richards” told the group to send a letter to the IRS with the entire board’s signatures stating that, under perjury of the law, they do not picket/protest or organize groups to picket or protest outside of Planned Parenthood. Once the IRS received this letter, their application would be approved. After a series of letters following a request for more invasive information, Thomas More Society special counsel Sally Wagenmaker sent a letter to the IRS demanding the tax exempt status be issued immediately.

Wagenmaker summarized her concerns about what she called “the IRS’s disturbing ability” to stall and suppress legitimate applicants. She explained how through lengthy questionnaires and wrong citations of applicable law (as in the case of Coalition for Life of Iowa), applicants with less fortitude or without access to legal advocates like the Thomas More Society will be effectively silenced from exercising their constitutional freedoms. Wagenmaker added, “The IRS’s role should only be to determine whether organizations fit the section 501(c)(3) test for ‘charitable, religious, or educational’ qualification, not to inquire about the content of prayers, protests, and petitions. It’s high time that the IRS be called to account for its workers’ potential to trample on our constitutional rights, through such ostensibly innocuous means…what the Ways and Means committee will discuss may only be the tip of the iceberg of IRS abuses.”

In another similar case, the IRS withheld approval of an application for charitable tax-exempt recognition of Christian Voices for Life, questioning the group’s involvement with “40 Days for Life” and “Life Chain” events. The Fort Bend County, Texas, organization was subjected to repeated and lengthy unconstitutional requests for information about the viewpoint and content of its educational communications, volunteer prayer vigils, and other protected activities.

Each and every one of these things is majorly newsworthy, if true. There is nothing “easy” about fighting the IRS and these groups had star legal counsel to help them, unlike many of the groups whose stories are coming out.

Before reporters dismiss or downplay or ignore these stories, or decide that conservatives/pro-lifers/religious adherents are going overboard in freaking out about them, I think we really just need to spend much more time on Reporting 101 — finding out whether the shocking claims of groups such as the Thomas More Society are true. But I don’t think we can journalistically countenance taking those claims about lengthy and invasive scrutiny from the IRS that was only overcome via high-powered legal help and translating that as “IRS approves groups easy peasy so what are the yokels complaining about?”

Onward and upward with the fact-finding, first.

  • Dave

    I’ve seen a report this past week that, some time ago, feminist and gay-rights groups faced the same kind of drag on getting classified. This isn’t exclusively a problem on the right.
    If this story blows up big enough it could lead to an overhaul of classification at the IRS, and that could have fallout. One comment I heard on PBS had to do with the difference between 501(c)(4), educational and charitable, and another classification for political groups, the big difference being that the latter pay taxes and have to disclose donor names. An overhaul of IRS classification could move a lot of groups enjoying the former status into the latter. I can just hear the yelling now: “This is retaliation!” “This is what you demanded we do!”
    BTW one of the really shameful stunts pulled at Cincinnati was to demand backers’ name of groups seeking a status that would make backers confidential, essentially demanding they groups give up their rights in order to be granted them. This should be cause for bipartisan protest.

    • RayIngles

      Speaking of basic journalism… how does – and how should – the IRS define “primarily political” versus “social welfare”? I haven’t seen too much coverage of that key question – nor the recent history that makes the distinction so immediately relevant. ( http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2013/05/20/what-is-primarily-political/ )

      • Sari

        Those were my

      • Sari

        Those were my thoughts exactly, Ray. Is this really about anti-Obama, anti-left wing groups being harassed, or is it a function of a societal slide away from organized religion and/or the government’s need to generate more revenue to cover basic services? Great, great idea for a story.

        • Dave

          I read your choices as a combination of false dichotomy and excluded middle. That is, it could be both, and there’s more. The more is the remoteness of bureaucrats from the people they purport to serve, to the point, in the instance of being oblivious to the impact on ordinary people of bureaucratic delay. Alas, in a “less government, dammit” environment, sensitivity training for bureaucrats counts as “more government.”

      • Dave

        The most straightforward approach I can come up with is that contributing more than X% of proceeds to political campaigns is political, and that do more than Y% (measured in money) of one’s “education” in ads or public rallies is political. As a lifelong lefty I’d be happy to live with evenhanded application of these standards.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    What bothers me about much media coverage on this scandal is that so many commentators are bemoaning how the scandal will lessen people’s trust in government. Chris Matthews of MSNBC has been one of the big bemoaners.
    But loss of a worshipful attitude toward government may be the best outcome of the IRS and APress scandals
    Nothing more scared our Founding Fathers than the type tyranny a government can morph into. That is why they wrote so many divisions of power into our constitution. And the blood-drenched history of the 20th Century sure proved their fears justified.

    • Dave

      Deacon, there are reasons to doubt that Matthews’ fears will come to pass, primarily because heated parallels to Watergate keep falling apart. Obama has owned the IRS mess and demanded scalps, something Nixon never did with the Plumbers until his own scalp was on the line. The Benghazi talking-points evolution has been shown to be a turf war between State and CIA, not very enlightened but not a top-down cover-up conspiracy. And Obama has staunchly defended the AP subpoenas without a Nixonian effort at concealment. The MSM are understandably sensitive to Watergate parallels, whether they like the facts on the ground or not, because it’s a founding epic for two generations of journalists. But they don’t hold up.
      As evidence I point to the fact that the military-rape issue isn’t getting the play it might, despite being a story about both the expoitation of women and how it comes out differently when a few women have broken through the glass ceiling and demanded changes. All kinds of feminist hooks there, but no Watergate hooks. Inside pages.
      Not to say the IRS mess wasn’t a mess and the principals could have done better in all there cases but, as Mark Shields said of Benghazi, there’s no there there.

      • http://twitter.com/gailfinke Gail Finke

        You don’t seem to think there’s any there anywhere. Your take on the laundry list of scandals is an interesting one that I’m trying to fathom.

        • Dave

          My expression was inept. I certainly think there’s a there there in all three stories. The IRS behaved at least ineptly and, arguably, shoddily. There was no adequate defense of our mission in Benghazi when we have the biggest military in the world. There is a legitimate tension between national security and reporters’ confidentiality.
          What I am saying is that sly or choleric references to Watergate are grossly overblown.
          Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

          • ElrondPA

            Umm, no. The IRS behaved at best illegally and at worst criminally (not all illegal behavior is a criminal offense). Individual managers were perhaps merely inept, but there is little doubt that someone, somewhere, was breaking the law, in their thoroughly illegal requests for information, in their leaks of confidential tax information to ProPublica, in their blatantly political targeting of groups seeking tax-exempt status (if there was “no political motivation,” why have we not heard of any liberal keywords being targeted?), and in their denials when flagged by targets and questioned by Congress over the last year. The acting head of the IRS shouldn’t be the only person to lose his job over this.

          • Dave

            To take your points one at a time: It’s hard to believe that improper and arguaby illegal IRS requests for information were limited to this affair. If that’s part of a pattern, it’s bureaucratic arrogance, not necesarily political. Ditto leaks. Ditto specious denials. Why no lefties targeted? (Believe me, I’d be the first to yell.) Probably because the explosion of new applications came from the conservative end of the spectrum. A good enough case can be made for quotidian arrogance and inertia that further imputation of motive falls to Occam’s razor.
            If bureaucratic arrogance and inertia are criminal acts, we’d better spring a lot of low-level drug offenders; we’re going to need the beds.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gallicho Grant Gallicho

    The Catholic League says it was “targeted” in 2008, while George W. Bush was president.

    • n_coast

      Thanks for bringing this to our attention. The catholicleague.org post starts thus: “Bill Donohue has written a piece for Newsmax explaining, for the first time, how the IRS targeted the Catholic League right after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. The lawyers who triggered the complaint did so at the behest of a left-wing activist who worked for a George Soros-funded organization; Donohue has the proof. “


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