Evangelical Groups Claim IRS Practicing ‘Viewpoint Discrimination’

Source: National Memo

Author: Sarah Posner

“Even before the ink was dry on the Treasury Department Inspector General’s report on the IRS, Franklin Graham, son of evangelical icon Billy Graham, wrote a letter to President Obama, demanding that the president “take some immediate action to reassure Americans we are not in a new chapter of America’s history—repressive government rule.”

Graham contended he was in possession of proof of this dire scenario: Last year, he says, the IRS conducted an audit of two tax-exempt organizations he runs, Samaritan’s Purse and The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. To Graham, this is no coincidence. “[P]rofiling by the IRS,” he lectured the president, “was not limited to conservative organizations; indeed, it extended to religious charities—Jewish and Christian—as well.”

Since Graham’s letter hit the pages of Politico on Tuesday, a number of religious right organizations and individuals have claimed that the IRS targeted them for audits, held up their tax-exempt applications, or subjected them to intrusive questioning, all of which they claim amounts to orchestrated anti-Christian bias.

In Graham’s case, though, the IRS was doing exactly what it is supposed to do. His ministries, both 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, are barred from attempting to influence the outcome of elections, the precise activity for which Graham admits the agency audited them.

Graham’s situation is “quite a different kettle of fish” than the IRS review of the Tea Party 501(c)(4) applications, said Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Unlike 501(c)(4) organizations, which are allowed to devote less than 50% of their activities to influencing political campaigns, there is an absolute ban on electoral campaign activity by 501(c)(3) organizations.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, for example, has advised its followers to support only “candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel.” That, along with the elder Graham’s promise to Mitt Romney to “do all I can to help you,” were attempts to influence the outcome of the election, said Boston.

Boston said he was actually “surprised” to read Graham’s claim that the IRS had audited his ministries “because we have reported a number of houses of worship for clearer cases of politicking,” with no apparent action by the IRS.

If a 501(c)(3) organization engages in politicking, said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President for Policy and Program at People for the American Way, “it is incumbent upon the IRS to do these investigations.” It has to “ask these questions,” but it “can’t single out a particular group because of their political views, ideology, or religious beliefs.” Any audit of the Graham group alone “doesn’t prove anything” about IRS bias against conservative groups, said Baker.

Observers on both sides of church-state separation issues say such investigations stalled after a 2009 federal court ruling ordering the agency to promulgate regulations under a statute that requires audits of churches be authorized by an “appropriate high-level Treasury official.” The IRS reportedly suspended all church audits until the adoption of rules to comply with the court ruling.

Opponents of the rule against church electioneering hope to provoke the IRS into conducting audits in order to generate a case to mount a Constitutional challenge to the rule.

Greg Scott, Senior Director of Media Relations at the Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious-right group that organizes Pulpit Freedom Sunday, during which pastors flaunt the rule in their pulpits, said that one church, Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minnesota, “was investigated briefly, but [the] file was closed due to what the IRS called a ‘procedural issue.’”

“Otherwise,” Scott said, “crickets.”

That would suggest that, contrary to claims that the IRS is “targeting” Christian groups, it has been hamstrung from investigating cases due to a bureaucratic failure to promulgate a rule required by the court ruling.

Graham, said Boston, seems to be “deliberately trying to confuse the issue to get play in the media.”

A number of religious-right organizations have jumped on the Graham bandwagon, claiming anti-Christian repression. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family who, after his retirement, launched a new radio program, maintains that the IRS asked inappropriate questions of his Family Talk Action as it applied for 501(c)(4) status. In a statement, Dobson claimed that an IRS employee told his lawyer she didn’t think the exemption would be granted because the group is “not educational”; it presented only one view, sounded like a “partisan right-wing group,” and was “political” because it “criticized President Obama, who was a candidate.” Dobson claims this is “viewpoint discrimination.”

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 Internationalsays 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 approvedclaimsthe “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.”

Emphasis Mine

see: http://www.nationalmemo.com/evangelical-groups-claim-irs-practicing-viewpoint-discrimination/

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Election Blurring of Church, State Separation Draws Complaints

From:Reuters/RSN

By:Mary Wisniewski, Reuters

Emphasis Mine:

“Political watchdog and secularist groups are asking the U.S. government to investigate whether Catholic bishops and a Christian evangelical group headed by preacher Billy Graham should lose tax breaks for telling followers how to vote in this year’s election.

Under constitutional protections of free speech and separation of church and state, churches are free to speak on any issue. But they risk losing tax breaks worth $145 billion in the past decade if they violate Internal Revenue Service rules by promoting or opposing any particular candidate. Other non-profits also have special tax status.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a political watchdog group, in its complaint to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, cited reports of individual bishops “abusing their positions to advocate against the election of President Barack Obama.”

The group’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, said some bishops went too far by saying a vote for Democrats would mean going to hell. “I don’t think the Catholic bishops should be intimidating parishioners to advocate for any particular candidate,” said Sloan.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation complained to the IRS about possible illegal political campaign intervention by Wisconsin Catholic bishops and the Charlotte, North Carolina-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

IRS spokesman Dean Patterson declined to comment on the complaints or on whether there was any investigation. “Federal law prohibits the IRS from discussing specific taxpayers or situations,” Patterson said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, through its spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said it would not comment on what a bishop says in his diocese.

The Billy Graham group said that its newspaper ads in publications like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today advocated votes for candidates who support “biblical values” but mentioned no candidate or party.

The ads, signed by Graham, asked voters to back candidates who support “the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman” and who protect “the sanctity of life,” an apparent reference to the group’s opposition to abortion.

The conference of bishops waged a campaign this year against the Obama administration’s health care requirement birth control be covered by health insurance.

Church doctrine is opposed to contraception as a means of birth control. Church leaders also spoke out against same-sex marriage but were on the losing side in four states where the issue was on the ballot.

The Power Of The Pulpit

Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University who worked for the Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh, said some bishops seemed particularly politically active in this election.

In Cafardi’s opinion, the bishops’ conference did not cross any tax-law lines but some individual bishops may have done so.

“The larger issue is that, irrespective of what the tax code says, churches should be sacred spaces, free of partisan politics,” said Cafardi.

Among those whose political positions created controversy in this campaign season was Springfield, Illinois, Bishop Thomas Paprocki who warned his flock in a letter of “intrinsic evils” in the Democratic platform’s support of abortion and same-sex marriage. A vote for someone who promotes such actions “places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy,” he said.

Peter Breen, executive director of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a law firm focused on Catholic issues, said the complaint against Catholic bishops was meant to frighten people of faith from challenging their political leaders, which religious people have always been called to do.

“That’s not electioneering – it’s merely making statements about public concern,” said Breen of Paprocki’s statement. “He’s not saying vote for Candidate A as opposed to Candidate B.”

Green Bay, Wisconsin, Bishop David Ricken made a statement similar to Paprocki’s in an October 24 letter to parishioners, but later said his comments “should not be misunderstood as an endorsement of any political candidates or parties.”

In an April sermon, Peoria, Illinois, Bishop Daniel Jenky said Obama, with his “radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path” to that of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and German dictator Adolf Hitler. The homily is posted on the diocese newspaper’s web site.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged the IRS in October to investigate a Texas church that advised on its marquee to “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim!” – a reference to Mormon Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Obama, who is not a Muslim.

Conservatives were not the only ones getting support from the pulpit. According to an October Pew Research Center report, 40 percent of Black Protestants reported hearing about presidential candidates from clergy at church, and the messages overwhelmingly favored Obama.

Americans United also complained in the 2008 election about a North Carolina Baptist group that invited Michelle Obama to speak at an event that they said appeared to be a campaign rally.

The Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the IRS needs to start vigorously enforcing restrictions against political speech by churches.

This is extraordinarily important – one of the few remaining restrictions on campaign spending,” said Lynn. He warned that if churches are allowed to say anything they want politically and keep their tax benefits, “this would be a gigantic new loophole and would not serve the church’s interest, or the public’s.”

see:http://readersupportednews.org/news-section2/318-66/14519-election-blurring-of-church-state-separation-draws-complaints

Right-Wing Religion’s War on America

From: Church and State Magazine

By: Rob Boston

“From a posh residence in the heart of New York City that has been described as a “mini-mansion,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan is perhaps the most visible representative of an American church empire of 60 million adherents and vast financial holdings.

Dolan and his fellow clergy move easily through the corridors of political power, courted by big-city mayors, governors and even presidents. In the halls of Congress, they are treated with a deference no secular lobbyist can match.

From humble origins in America, the church has risen to lofty heights marked by affluence, political influence and social respect. Yet, according to church officials, they are being increasingly persecuted, and their rights are under sustained attack.

The refrain has become commonplace: There is a “war on religion.” Faith is under assault. The administration of President Barack Obama has unleashed a bombardment on religion unlike anything ever seen.

The average American would be hard-pressed to see evidence of this “war.” Millions of people meet regularly in houses of worship. What’s more, those institutions are tax exempt. Many denominations participate in taxpayer-funded social service programs. Their clergy regularly speak out on the issues of the day. In the political arena, religious leaders are treated with great respect.

Furthermore, religious organizations often get special breaks that aren’t accorded to their secular counterparts. Houses of worship aren’t required to report their income to the Internal Revenue Service. They don’t have to apply for tax-exempt status; they receive it automatically as soon as they form. Religious entities are routinely exempted from employment laws, anti-discrimination measures and even routine health and safety inspections.

Unlike secular lobbies, religious groups that work with legislators on Capitol Hill don’t have to register with the federal government and are free from the stringent reporting requirements imposed on any group that seeks to influence legislation.

Religion in America would seem to be thriving in this “hands-off” atmosphere, as evidenced by church attendance rates, which in the United States tend to be higher than any other Western nation. So where springs this “war on religion” talk?

Twin dynamics, mutually related and interdependent, are likely at work. On one hand, some religious groups are upping their demands for even more exemptions from general laws. When these are not always extended, leaders of these groups scream about hostility toward religion and say they are being discriminated against. This catches the attention of right-wing political leaders, who toss gasoline on the rhetorical fires.

A textbook example of this occurred during the recent flap over coverage of contraceptives under the new health care reform. The law seeks to ensure a baseline of coverage for all Americans, and birth control is included. Insurance firms that contract with companies must make it available with no co-pays.

Houses of worship are exempt from this requirement. But religiously affiliated organizations, such as church-run hospitals, colleges and social service agencies, are dealt with differently. The insurance companies that serve them must make contraceptives available to the employees of these entities, but the religious agencies don’t have to pay for them directly.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) attacked this policy and insisted that it violates the church’s right of conscience. Furthermore, the hierarchy insisted that all private employers should also have the right to deny any medical coverage that conflicts with their beliefs – no matter what the religious views of their employees.

The issue quickly became mired in partisan politics. Claims of a “war on religion” expand on long-held Religious Right seasonal claims of an alleged “war on Christmas.” The assertions of yuletide hostility paid great dividends to the Religious Right. They boosted groups’ fund-raising efforts and motivated some activists to get involved in politics.

Religious Right leaders and their allies in the Catholic hierarchy are hoping for a similar payoff through their claims of a war on religion.

With the economy improving, Republicans may be on the verge of losing a powerful piece of ammunition to use against Obama. The party’s Religious Right faction is eager to push social issues to the front and center as a way of mobilizing the base.

Many political leaders are happy to parrot this line. For the time being, they’ve latched on to the birth control issue as their leading example of this alleged war.

To hear these right-wing politicians tell it, asking a religiously affiliated institution that is heavily subsidized with taxpayer funds to allow an insurance company to provide birth control to those who want it is a great violation of “religious liberty.”

In mid February, House members went so far as to hold a hearing on the matter before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, stacking it with a bevy of religious leaders who oppose the rule on contraceptives. Among them was Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., who heads up a new Catholic lobbying effort on this and other social issues.

Americans United submitted testimony to the committee, but Republicans on the panel denied the Democrats’ request to hear testimony from Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown Law School who supports the contraceptive mandate, thus leaving the panel stacked with religious figures – mostly men – who are hostile to contraceptives. (See “No Fluke,” April 2012 Church & State.)

The idea was to create the impression that the religious community – and by extension the American public – is up in arms over the regulation. In fact, the religious figures who spoke at the event were from ultra-conservative traditions that represent just one segment of religion in America. Many religious leaders and denominations support access to contraceptives, and several polls have shown support for the Obama administration’s position hovering at around 65 percent. (Polls also show that many American Catholics disagree with the church hierarchy on this issue.)

This isn’t surprising in a country where use of contraceptives is widespread. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of women who engage in sexual activity will use at least one artificial form of birth control at some point in their lives.

Contraceptives are also often prescribed for medical reasons, such as shrinking ovarian cysts or relieving menstrual pain. Americans respect religious liberty, but most believe it can be maintained while safeguarding access to needed medications.

Most Americans, in fact, understand the need to balance rights. Religious organizations have the right to believe and preach what they want, but their ability to rely on government to help them spread these views is necessarily limited.

In addition, valid social goals can override an overly broad definition of religious liberty. In some states, fundamentalist Christian parents have been ordered by courts to take their children to doctors. The theory is that a child’s right to live free of sickness and disease outweighs the parents’ religious liberty concerns.

In addition, religious liberty has not traditionally been construed as license to trample on the rights of others.

“People who cry moral indignation about government-mandated contraception coverage appear unwilling to concede that the exercise of their deeply held convictions might infringe on the rights of millions of people who are burdened by unplanned pregnancy or want to reduce abortion or would like to see their tax dollars committed to a different purpose,” wrote Erika Christakis, an early childhood educator and administrator at Harvard College, on a Time magazine blog recently.

The courts have long recognized this need to balance rights. In the late 19th century, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down plural marriage, which was then practiced by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon practice, the court held, was disruptive to society and had no roots in Western tradition; thus it could be banned.

In the modern era, the court devised a test whereby government could restrict religious liberty if it could demonstrate a “compelling state interest” and that it had employed the “least restrictive means” to meets its goals.

That standard was tightened even further in 1990, when the Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case known as Employment Division v. Smith. The decision, written by arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, held that government has no obligation to exempt religious entities from “neutral” laws that are “generally applicable.”

Since then, many religious groups have turned to the political process to win exemptions from the law. Generally speaking, they’ve been very successful. In a ground-breaking 2006 New York Times series, the newspaper chronicled the various exemptions from the law granted to religious organizations covering areas like immigration, land use, employment regulations, safety inspections and others.

The Times reported that since 1989, “more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation….” The paper noted that other breaks “have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.”

But religious groups, like any other special interest, don’t get everything they want. On occasions when they’ve failed, some religious organizations have been quick to complain that discrimination or a hostility toward religion did them in. In fact, political leaders might have simply concluded that certain demands of religious groups are not in the best interests of larger society.

Is there any evidence that Obama is stingier with exemptions than past administrations or that the president has it in for religious groups? Not really.

Under Obama, the “faith-based” initiative, an idea that goes back to the days of George W. Bush, has continued to flourish. Obama even stepped back from a vow he made while campaigning in 2008 to require religious groups that receive support from the taxpayer to drop discriminatory hiring policies.

Mother Jones magazine reported in February that if Obama is hostile to religion, he has an odd way of showing it.

“But all the outrage about religious freedom has overshadowed a basic truth about the Obama administration: When it comes to religious organizations and their treatment by the federal government, the Obama administration has been extremely generous,” reported Stephanie Mencimer for the magazine. “Religious groups have benefited handsomely from Obama’s stimulus package, budgets, and other policies. Under Obama, Catholic religious charities alone have received more than $650 million, according to a spokeswoman from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where much of the funding comes from.”

Obama’s Justice Department hasn’t always pleased religious conservatives, but it has hardly been hostile to faith. The department sided with the state of Arizona in defending at the Supreme Court a private school tax-credit scheme that overwhelmingly benefits religious schools, going so far as to assist with oral arguments before the justices. When a federal court struck down the National Day of Prayer as a church-state violation in 2010, the administration criticized the ruling and quickly filed an appeal.

“If Obama is ‘warring’ against religion, he’s doing it with a popgun and a rubber knife,” Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, told The Washington Times recently. “On core religious freedom issues, they have been moderate, to a fault…. It’s not much of a war.”

Other observers note that in a nation where the government’s regulatory touch over religiously affiliated institutions is exceedingly light, it’s hard to take claims of a war on religion seriously.

People who claim the government is hostile to religion are either insincere or uninformed,” said Steven K. Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University. “Religious entities enjoy a host of benefits and advantages that their non-religous counterparts lack.

Green, who was legal director at Americans United during the 1990’s, added, “At the same time, many religious entities that enjoy exemptions from neutral regulations receive subsidies from the government for their operations. Rather than there being a ‘war on religion,’ the government surrendered its regulatory forces a long time ago.”

Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Rob, who has worked at Americans United since 1987, also serves as assistant editor of AU’s “Church & State” magazine. Rob is the author of three books: “Close Encounters with the Religious Right: Journeys into the Twilight Zone of Religion and Politics” (Prometheus Books, 2000); “The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition” (Prometheus Books, 1996) and “Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State” (Prometheus Books, 1993; second edition, 2003).

Emphasis mine

see:http://www.alternet.org/story/154929/right-wing_religion%27s_war_on_america?akid=8589.123424.Ne4e-e&rd=1&t=5