While it is clear that the IRS has targeted Tea Party groups for special investigation, it appears that the agency may also have focused on religious, pro-life, and pro-marriage groups and individuals—refusing them tax-exempt status, and sometimes, as in the case of the Coalition for Life of Iowa, demanding that they discontinue some of their pro-life activities.
According to a World Magazine report, Susan Martinek, the founder of the Coalition for Life of Iowa, attempted to expand the pro-life movement in Cedar Rapids, Iowa by coordinating the resources of the churches and other pro-life organizations. She sought tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service in October, 2008. In April, 2009, the IRS requested additional information—including “advertisements, schedules, syllabi, handouts, and summaries of the speeches given by those in the Coalition.” After complying with the IRS request for the records, Martinek called the IRS on June 6, 2009, and was advised by an IRS agent that in order to be approved for tax- exempt status, she and her board had to pledge—in writing and under the threat of perjury—that they would not organize groups to picket or protest at any Planned Parenthood office or clinic.1
Christian Voices for Life in Sugar Land, Texas faced similar demands for additional documentation from the IRS when they applied in 2010. An IRS letter dated March 31, 2011, asked Marie McCoy, the founder of the pro-life group, whether she provided education on both sides of the issue of abortion. This request was a clear violation of IRS guidelines. In 1980, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that groups did not have to present both sides of an issue to qualify for tax-exempt status. According to IRS guidelines, organizations have to be charitable, educational, religious, or some combination of the three in order to qualify for tax-exempt status. But Christian Voices (like Coalition for Life of Iowa) was required to meet a much more restrictive requirement—one that went far beyond what the law required. In the denial of their IRS application for tax-exempt status, the IRS questioned their involvement with “40 Days for Life” and the “Life Chain” events.
To help them respond to these demands, McCoy and Martinek enlisted the help of Attorney Sally Wagenmaker of the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based public interest law firm which has found itself on the front lines in what appears to be the IRS war on pro-life groups.2 Established in 1997 in order to defend the historic National Organization for Women v. Scheidler case, the Thomas More Society continues to litigate cutting-edge cases, including those concerned with protecting the First Amendment rights of those who pray and counsel outside abortion facilities. In the Scheidler case, the National Organization for Women attempted to gag pro-life activism at abortion clinics nationally through the use of federal antitrust and racketeering statutes. The Thomas More Society won that case—twice—in the U.S. Supreme Court: 8-1 in 2003 and 8-0 in 2006. Today, Thomas More attorneys spend most of their time defending laws that protect human life from conception to natural death, ensuring the free expression of religion in the public square and restoring respect for marriage as the sacred union of one man and one woman. They have defended some of the nation’s most highly respected pro-life and religious leaders, including David Bereit, the co-founder and leader of the 40 Days for Life initiative; Lila Rose and Live Action; the Joseph Scheidler family and their Pro-Life Action League; Troy Newman and Operation Rescue; Former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline; the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; and what the society describes as “thousands of clients” whose First Amendment rights have been threatened.3
IRS Targeting of Pro-Life Groups Continues Today
On August 1, 2013, the Thomas More Society submitted a memorandum to Congressman Aaron Schock (IL-18) of the House Committee on Ways and Means, detailing additional evidence of continued IRS targeting of pro-life organizations. This was a follow-up—and an extension—of an earlier memorandum the society sent to Rep. Schock in May, 2013, when the Thomas More attorneys documented what they described as “harassment” of three pro-life groups.4 The August memorandum documented six different groups that have experienced viewpoint-biased discrimination by the IRS, dating back to 2009 and involving multiple IRS offices and agents, including those in El Monte, California; Chicago, Illinois; and Cincinnati, Ohio.
In their August memorandum to Congress, attorneys for the Thomas More Society revealed that, “Despite claims by the Obama Administration that the harassment has ceased, the Society produced over 230 pages of documentation showing that the federal government is still interrogating pro-life groups beyond the scope of its legal authority, infringing upon these organizations’ First Amendment rights of assembly, free speech, and religious liberty.”5
According to Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel of the Thomas More Society, “We have now produced irrefutable evidence of six clients whose First Amendment rights were trampled upon by the IRS because of their position upholding the sanctity of life. Even after public disclosure of this wrongdoing, the Obama Administration’s IRS has refused to cease its illegal activity.” Breen has promised to “continue to aid Congress in its investigation until those responsible are brought to justice and the IRS is made to respect every American’s constitutional rights.” Since the release of their May memorandum to Congress, the Thomas More Society has been contacted by “additional organizations seeking legal counsel related to IRS issues.” Their August memorandum to Congress highlights three of these entities as having experienced illegal targeting by the IRS: Cherish Life Ministries, LIFE Group, and Emerald Coast Coalition for Life. According to their press release on August 1, “the recent experience of several pro-life organizations applying for 501c(3) charitable recognition reveals blatant bias on the part of the IRS agents assigned to process these applications.”6 Repeatedly these pro-life groups were subjected to what society attorneys have identified as “lengthy unconstitutional requests for information about the viewpoint and content of its educational communications, volunteer prayer vigils and other protected activities.” In addition, these groups were advised that they must educate and advocate on abortion from both sides of the issue. In other words, the pro-life groups were told by the IRS that they must present a pro-abortion message as part of their educational mission.
Pro-Life Groups Must Stay “Neutral on Abortion” to Qualify for Tax-Exempt Status
Confirming the disclosures by the Thomas More Society that pro-life groups were advised by the IRS that they must present a “balanced” approach to abortion, the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom has released audio clips of a telephone conversation on March 8, 2013, in which IRS Exempt Organization Specialist Sherry Wan told Ania Joseph, president of Pro-Life Revolution, that in order to obtain a tax exemption, “you cannot force your religion or force your beliefs on somebody else . . . .You have to know your boundaries, you have to know your limits.”7 The IRS has approved applications for tax exemptions for pro-abortion groups including Planned Parenthood and Life and Liberty for Women, yet it demands neutrality on abortion from Pro-Life Revolution.
Pro-Life Revolution is a faith-based organization providing support to pregnant women. Working closely with local pregnancy resource centers, churches, and other pro-life groups, the organization sought tax-exempt status in order to expand their educational activities. But during the recorded phone conversation, the IRS agent is heard advising Joseph that “your action is based on more blind, emotional feelings,” concluding that “you cannot force your religion or force your beliefs on someone else.”8 When Joseph protested that her organization was distributing educational brochures and not forcing anyone to do something they did not want to do, the agent disagreed, claiming that “asking people to take action against an abortion clinic is not educational.”9
Similar experiences were reported by Peter Shinn, founder of Cherish Life Ministries, a pro-life coalition of churches that “support mothers struggling with unexpected pregnancies, promotes abstinence and advocates for an end to abortion in the community, state and nation.”10 In an interview published at WorldNetDaily, Shinn disclosed that his application for tax-exempt status by the IRS was declined: “The representative was telling me I had to provide information on all aspects of abortion. I could not just educate the churches from the pro-life perspective . . . . Every time I pressed her on this issue and asked her to clarify her position, she would state that it wasn’t what she was saying, and then, she would repeat it almost the same way.” Shinn claimed that the IRS was accusing him of setting up a political organization: “I asked her why she said we were a political organization and she said it was because we had said in our application that we did less than 5 percent political activity. I explained to her that this was what was stated in the application and all we were doing was acknowledging that we were doing less than 5 percent political activity.” Shinn also said that the IRS agent accused him of having links to political activity on his website, even though he said he did not.
In his interview with WorldNetDaily, Shinn alleges that the “IRS had rewritten his proposed bylaws to paint our organization as a political organization.”11 Shinn concluded that the agent did seem to “get nervous though in the end when I pressed her that I wanted specific information about why I had to educate from a pro-abortion perspective, not just pro-life . . . I explained to her that the Pro-Life Action League even has pro-life in their title and they certainly don’t teach pro-abortion topics and they are still 501c(3). I also told her that Planned Parenthood does not teach about pro-life issues yet they are also still a 501c(3).”12
Pro-Life Organizations Have Been Damaged by the IRS Delays
Even though the June, 2013, report by J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General, claims that the harassment of Tea Party groups ended in 2012, it is clear that the harassment of pro-life groups continues today. In their August 1 memo to Congress, the Thomas More Society detailed the unusually lengthy application process for pro-life groups. While Cherish Life Ministries and LIFE Runners eventually received tax-exempt status, it took more than a year—including appeals and legal action—to finally receive their 501c(3) status. According to National Review Online reporter Katrina Trinko, LIFE Runners had initially received a letter from the IRS stating that they were not eligible for 501c(3) status. And, although they appealed and finally won their appeal in July, 2013 (they finally received their tax-exempt status on August 3), LIFE’s co-founder and president Pat Castle said he found the process “shocking” and damaging to the organization’s finances. Castle claims that the IRS agent asked them whether “their organization provided information regarding other alternatives to ‘pro-life.’” LIFE was judged to need an “Exempt Organization Specialist” to review its application—creating unnecessary delays. According to Castle, the “long delay hurt the group financially . . . . LIFE anticipated winning approval by October, 2012, when the group held one of its biggest events. But they had not received any answer from the IRS by then.” Nor had the group yet received tax-exempt status when it held other large events in January, March, and April, 2013. “It hurt us . . . . We would have been able to say, ‘Hey sponsors, contributors we’re tax-exempt.’ We weren’t able to do that.”13
While Cherish Life and LIFE Runners finally received their exempt status after legal interventions, as of this writing, Emerald Coast Coalition for Life is still waiting for their response from the IRS. According to Katrina Trinko, the IRS letter to Emerald Coast stating that the organization would need the Exempt Organization Specialist was signed by Lois Lerner—the infamous IRS official who had formerly been in charge of tax-exempt organizations until she was placed on administrative leave for refusing to testify before Congress on whether the IRS inappropriately targeted conservative groups. The letter from Lerner, which Emerald Coast received September 7, 2012, informed the group that the IRS would be in touch in approximately 90 days. The IRS did not contact Emerald Coast, however, until June 19, 2013—285 days later.
Anecdotal Evidence Abounds but Comparative Data Needed to Confirm Bias
While we do not have access to empirical data—beyond anecdotal data—documenting that pro-life groups were targeted by the IRS at a greater rate than pro-choice groups, the IRS has released overwhelming evidence that conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status have been unfairly targeted by the Obama administration. According to The Hill, J. Russell George, Treasury’s Inspector General for Tax Administration, told Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) in a letter dated June 26, 2013, that although 100 percent of conservative organizations with “Tea Party,” “Patriots,” or “9/12” in their name were targeted for special inspection by the IRS, the agency did not use inappropriate criteria to scrutinize groups seeking tax-exempt status with “progressive” in their name: “Our audit did not find evidence that the IRS used the ‘progressives’ identifier as selection criteria for potential political cases between May 2010 and May 2012.” The Inspector General stressed that 100 percent of the conservative groups with the “tea party” type names were flagged for extra attention, while only 30 percent of the groups with “progress” or “progressive” were highlighted as potentially political.14
Until the Inspector General is willing to release data on the percentage of organizations seeking tax-exempt status with “Life” in their name, we will be unable to conclude that these organizations were systematically targeted. However, the anecdotal evidence gathered by the Thomas More Society and the Alliance Defending Freedom appears to show bias against the pro-life groups—requiring them to produce evidence that other organizations have not had to produce.
Some groups and individuals have attempted to file Freedom of Information requests to determine whether their organization was unfairly targeted by the IRS. In many cases, however, the agency has been slow to respond to these requests. Lynn Walsh, an Investigative Producer at WPTV at NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach, Florida, wrote of her experiences in attempting to file a Freedom of Information request on behalf of someone who was applying for non-profit status for a constitutional law organization in Columbus, Ohio, in 2010:
While going through the process the applicant received a letter from the IRS asking for more information, including an answer to the following question: “Please explain in detail your organization’s involvement with the Tea Party.” He had concerns that the IRS may have been employing an “anti-tea party” policy and contacted me. I was curious. I drafted a FOIA request and sent it along. I received several letters from the IRS stating it would need more time to find the information I was asking for. Finally a response came in the mail saying it did not have any documents responsive to my request. I set the FOIA aside and moved on to other stories. But, after reading the Treasury Inspector General report released last week and reviewing my FOIA request, I now have more questions . . . . Did the agency do its due diligence to find documents responsive to my request? I have made calls to the contact person listed on my FOIA letter but have yet to hear back. I am re-submitting the original request to the IRS.15
A Personal Addendum
Two years ago in May 2010, when Michael Iannotti, an IRS agent with the New Haven IRS office, called my home to notify me that I was being audited, I was not terribly surprised. While my husband and I had never been audited throughout our 39-year marriage, I knew that the Obama administration had greatly expanded the offices of the IRS, hiring additional personnel; I just assumed that we were among the many more audits the agency was doing that year.
But, when the agent said that it was I who was being audited—and not my husband—and refused my request to have the CPA who has done our family’s taxes for 20 years meet with him as my representative, I began to wonder why I was being singled out. I make a small fraction of our family income. When the agent informed me that it was my business income and expenses—my writing income—that was being investigated, I began to worry that I might have published something that triggered this audit.
After all, I had been critical in my publications of the public funding for abortion that was very much a part of the Affordable Care Act. In March 2010, I had published a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Health Care Reform and the President’s Faithful Helpers,” which identified progressive Catholic groups such as Catholics United—a 501c(4) organization—and its sister organization Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good—a 501c(3) organization—that were helping to pass the health-care law, replete with funding for abortion. I pointed out that George Soros was supporting Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good—which was sharing money with Catholics United in what appeared to me to be a kind of money-laundering scheme. I also published articles describing these groups in Catholic World Report and in the online publication Catholic Advocate.
Chris Korzen, president of Catholics United, and formerly an organizer with SEIU, was especially angry about the articles I was publishing. In late March, he called in to a radio station (Al Kresta’s program on Ave Maria Radio) while I was being interviewed on the air to say that I was “lying” about the fact that Soros was supporting him. Fortunately, I had the IRS 990 forms (from GuideStar) from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United in front of me during my interview with Korzen and pointed out that during the same year he was working full-time for Catholics United, he was being paid $84,900 from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a Soros-supported organization.
In May, when the telephone call from the IRS came, I did not identify a possible connection to my publications—until the requests for documents began. Almost all of the requests focused on deposits into our bank accounts—payments for articles or speaking engagements. The actual audit occurred in the federal offices in New Haven. I was allowed to have my tax accountant on speaker phone (he is out of state) to help. The agent was polite and the process was not onerous but again, it was focused primarily on deposits into our bank accounts—most of them very small deposits. He demanded to know the source of one larger deposit (a $12,000 deposit), but it turned out that the deposit was actually a refund check from the IRS itself.
The agent continued to ask for documentation for additional deposits for several months in 2010. And, when it was over, I began to wonder if I had been chosen by the IRS for a reason. I never made my concerns public—except with family, friends, and a few of my colleagues and students. I did tell the staff at the Catholic Advocate, because I decided that it would be best for my family if I did not write for them anymore. It seemed like a more political site—they are a 501c(4) organization—than I usually write for, and I decided to stop writing for them because of the audit.
Since that time, I have learned of others—some of them pro-life advocates—who have been similarly chosen by the IRS. It seemed to me to be related to activities related to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Most notably, Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, was notified by the IRS that he had been selected for an audit. But, unlike me, Bill Donohue has proof that it was Chris Korzen of Catholics United—the same Chris Korzen who called in to the Kresta radio show to accuse me of lying about his income—who triggered the audit.
According to an article Donohue published on Newsmax in May, 2013, he wrote that he received this proof from CNN. CNN had received a copy of the letter Korzen’s lawyers had written to the IRS that Donahue believes triggered the audit of his organization. CNN got the letter from Korzen himself because Korzen was attempting to prevent CNN from interviewing Donohue after he had published several articles revealing the role that Catholics United was taking to promote the Affordable Care Act. According to Donohue, Korzen claimed that Donohue was not “an authentic Catholic commentator and representative of the Catholic Church” and said “that they should either drop me altogether or put me on with Alexia Kelley of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good”—the sister organization to Catholics United. According to Donohue, Korzen’s lawyers at Catholics United asked the IRS to question the source of funding that the Catholic League was receiving.16
It was courageous of Bill Donohue to come forward to describe the targeting of his organization by the IRS. Unlike Mr. Donohue, I have no proof that my audit was politically motivated. Like many others, I, too, am awaiting the results of a Freedom of Information request that my attorney filed in early June, 2013. Letters we have received from Ron Mele, IRS Disclosure Manager, Disclosure Office 1, on July 9 and August 7 asked for extensions because the agency claims to need “more time to obtain the records requested.” The last letter we received from the IRS (dated August 7) stated that they were “still working on the request and need additional time to August 30, 2013.”
Finally, on September 10 my attorney received a letter from the IRS stating that it was a response to my FOIA request. They noted that their FOIA response was a “partial denial” of my request to determine why I was chosen for audit, adding that they were “withholding 18 pages in full and 4 pages in part.” The letter from Mr. Mele, the Disclosure Manager, stated that “the FOIA exemption (b)(5) exempts from disclosure inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” Mr. Mele also wrote that “the redacted portions of each page are marked by the applicable FOIA exemptions. This constitutes a partial denial of your request. I have enclosed Notice 393 explaining your appeal rights.”
It is likely that we may never know who or what triggered our audit without a lengthy appeals process—but like many of those in the pro-life community, we are not inclined to pursue litigation with the IRS at this point.
1. Edward Lee Pitts. “Agent Exegesis.” World Magazine issue 2013/06/15. Posted May 31, 2013. http://www.worldmag.com/2013/05/agent_exegesis/page3
4. Press Release by Thomas More Society. “IRS Harassment of Pro-Life Groups Continues Despite Claims to the Contrary.” August 1, 2013 https://www.thomasmoresociety.org/2013/08/01/irs-harassment-of-pro-life-groups-continues-despite-claims-to-contrary/
8. Alissa Robertson. “IRS Agent Warns Pro-Life Group Against Acting on Blind, Emotional Feelings.” World Magazine. Posted June 11, 2013. http://www.worldmag.com/2013/06/irs_agent_warns_pro_life_group_against_acting_on_blind_emotional_feelings
10. Bob Unruh. “IRS Tells Pro-Life Ministry to Promote Abortion.” WorldNet Daily. Posted May 13, 2013. http://www.wnd.com/2013/05/irs-tells-pro-life-ministry-to-promote-abortion/
13. Katrina Trinko. “IRS Harasses Pro-Life Groups.” National Review Online. August 2, 2013. http://www.nationalreview.com/node/355021/print
15. Lynn Walsh. “Revisiting an IRS FOIA request: Did the Government Do Its Due Diligence?” Society of Professional Journalists. May 22, 2013.
16. Bill Donohue. “IRS Targeted Catholic League.” Newsmax. Posted, May 16, 2013. http://www.newsmax.com/BillDonohue/IRS-Catholic-League-Soros/2013/05/16/id/504883
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Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. She is the co-author, with Christopher White, of Renewal: How a New Generation of Catholic Priests and Bishops Are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books, 2013).