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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Dobson, whose organization was eventually granted (c)(4) status, complained, “The American people deserve better treatment from its government than this. Christian ministries and others supporting the family must not be silenced or intimidated by the IRS or other branches of the government.”

Richard Schmalbeck, professor of law at Duke University and an expert on tax-exempt organizations, said that while “it is always dangerous to reach firm conclusions as to ultimate outcomes based on only partial statements of fact received from only one party to a dispute,” the Dobson situation appeared to be a result of bureaucratic confusion. The questions Dobson’s organization received might have been “irrelevant” to a 501(c)(4) determination, but relevant to a 501(c)(3) inquiry. Perhaps, Schmalbeck said, “the agent mistakenly thought that was the case, or mistakenly applied (c)(3) tests to a (c)(4) application.”

Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law and chairman of the religious-right legal firm Liberty Counsel, also claimed the IRS “targeted” his group, the Freedom Federation. He said that in the (c)(4) application process, the IRS asked the Freedom Federation to provide copies of original content it publishes on its website; to describe its meetings and provide copies of materials distributed at them; and to provide copies of all materials distributed at an event, “including but not limited to event agendas and itineraries, promotional materials, newsletters, educational materials, flyers, and other materials.”

“What business does the IRS have asking these questions?” Staver demanded, adding, “An investigation of the IRS is necessary to stop this agency from pushing a political agenda.”

But Schmalbeck said these questions appeared designed to determine whether the organization’s activities were “primarily aimed at influencing the outcome of elections,” and therefore appeared to be appropriate.

Other religious-right organizations and individuals are offering stories that are mysteriously undetailed. Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze reported that Anne Hendershott, a conservative Catholic professor, was audited by the IRS, and asserted it was because she had been critical of left-leaning Catholic groups and of President Obama. The anti-gay National Organization for Marriage claims the fact that the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign obtained a copy of its confidential tax returns “suggests that problems at the IRS are potentially far more serious than even these latest revelations reveal,” and hinted the Obama re-election campaign had played a role. Pharmacists for Life International says two of its officers and board members were “harassed” by the IRS—but would not identify the employees or the specific nature of the alleged harassment.

Anti-choice groups are also making claims of harassment—some of which were echoed by Republican lawmakers in the House Ways and Means Committee hearing Friday.

Christian Voices for Life, an anti-choice group whose application for 501(c)(3) status was eventually approved, claims the “IRS has sought to know whether the group does ‘education on both sides of the issues,’” and “whether members of the group “try to block people to [sic] enter a … medical clinic.”

Rep. Aaron Schock, an Illinois Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, entered a 150-page exhibit from Christian Voices for Life’s legal counsel, the Thomas More Society, about its and two other Thomas More clients’ treatment by the IRS. Schock maintained the documents showed “horrible instances of IRS abuse of power, political and religious bias, and repression of their Constitutional rights.”

After the hearing, the Thomas More Society issued a statement, “Congress Receives Irrefutable Evidence of IRS Harassment of Pro-Life Organizations.”

With regard to Christian Voices for Life, Schmalbeck said that if the group had applied for tax-exempt status as an educational organization, the agent’s queries about balanced views would have been appropriate, but not if it had applied as a religious organization. One of the letters sent by its lawyers to the IRS maintained the group’s focus “is on educational activities designed to promote respect for life.”

The questions about the activity outside clinics, however, appear to be aimed at a legitimate concern. “[O]rganizations that practice civil disobedience are denied exempt status,” said Schmalbeck. IRS questions about blocking access to clinics, then, were probably “aimed at making that determination, and that would be appropriate,” he said.

The current uproar over the Tea Party 501(c)(4) applications appears to feed a previously existing grievance among conservatives that the IRS is biased against them. When Christian Voices for Life obtained its tax-exempt status in 2011, the Thomas More Society’s executive director, Peter Breen, claimed, “This is not the first time that Internal Revenue Service personnel have attempted to place unconstitutional restrictions on pro-life organizations.”

This area of the law, said Schmalbeck, “is quite complicated, and even IRS agents can make mistakes that do not necessarily reflect political animus.  Still, it would be nice if they were well enough trained that they got these questions right in almost all cases.”

Photo: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

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