IRS scandal and ‘easy’ religion ghosts

IRS scandal and ‘easy’ religion ghosts May 18, 2013

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.

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