June 21, 2013

Editorial

Intimidation from the IRS

One of the scandals that has been much in the news lately is the targeting by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) of groups and organizations considered too conservative. The investigation and congressional hearings forced the firing of acting IRS Commissioner Steven T. Miller and the placing of Lois Lerner, who headed the IRS division overseeing tax-exempt organizations, on administrative leave after she took the Fifth Amendment during a congressional hearing.

Much of the publicity about this scandal has focused on tea party groups because the first media reports concerned the exceptionally long and detailed questionnaires the IRS sent to them when they applied for tax-exempt status. However, some Catholic organizations have not escaped this IRS harassment.

Organizations connected to the Catholic Church are careful to refrain from partisan political activities while emphasizing the Church’s social justice teachings, including those related to the sanctity of life. However, as we have reported and editorialized about, the Obama administration has been trying to force Catholic organizations to do things that the Church considers immoral, thus putting them on opposite sides.

Furthermore, the Obama administration has consistently shown itself to be pro-choice on abortion, and is encouraging the redefinition of marriage, again putting it in opposition to the Church.

It comes as no surprise to many people, therefore, that over-zealous people in the IRS would target pro-life groups for special attention.

For example, the national Catholic weekly Our Sunday Visitor reported in its June 2 issue that an IRS agent demanded that, in order for Iowa’s Coalition for Life to get its tax-exempt status approved, its board members had to sign a sworn declaration that they would not picket or protest outside Planned Parenthood facilities.

They turned to the Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm dedicated to fostering respect in law for life, marriage and religious liberty. Coalition for Life eventually got its tax-exempt status approved, but it might not have happened without help from the Thomas More Society.

This was one of several cases handled by the Thomas More Society on behalf of pro-life organizations that ran into roadblocks with the IRS. On May 17, the society presented more than 150 pages, detailing alleged political targeting of Christian and pro-life groups, to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee.

The allegations are that the IRS delayed the granting of tax-exempt status by sending long questionnaires. Sometimes they asked about the political affiliations of board members and what periodicals they regularly read.

In Texas, a pro-life group in Fort Bend County called Christian Voices for Life was questioned about its prayer meetings and educational seminars. Another pro-life group, called Small Victories, received phone calls from the IRS every two or three weeks during 2011.

Even an organization as prominent as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association received intimidation, according to the article in Our Sunday Visitor. Billy Graham’s son, Rev. Franklin Graham, said that the IRS contacted his North Carolina-based ministry after it ran newspaper ads in April 2011 encouraging voters to support a state amendment against the redefinition of marriage.

Rev. Graham said the IRS told him it would review the ministry’s tax records for 2010. However, it eventually upheld its tax-exempt status.

Even individuals can sometimes be targeted, according to allegations. In 2010, Dr. Anne Hendershott, who is currently a professor of psychology, sociology and social work at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio wrote articles that criticized the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The IRS contacted her and told her that her “business activities” would be audited.

But when the audit occurred, the IRS was interested only in the money that she earned from articles in Catholic publications, not the rest of her income. Nothing came of the audit itself, but she had to fill out a detailed questionnaire and answer probing questions over the telephone.

These intrusions by the IRS into the ministry of Catholic and other religious organizations is just one more example of how governments at the federal, state and local levels are taking actions that threaten the religious liberty of all people of faith.

To raise awareness about these threats, the Church in the United States is observing its second annual Fortnight for Freedom beginning today and ending on July 4.

This two-week period of prayer and action is intended to motivate a growing number of Catholics across the country to defend the religious liberty that belongs to all people.

If more Catholics let their elected leaders know of the importance of religious liberty, perhaps the actions of the IRS against Catholic and other religious organizations that have come to light recently might become a thing of the past.

—John F. Fink

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