Conservative, pro-life groups feel chilling effect of audits

Early in 2010, Dr. Anne Hendershott wrote several published articles that criticized the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, for its hidden provisions for abortion funding.

Hendershott, now a professor of psychology, sociology and social work at Franciscan University of Steubenville, also targeted several progressive Catholic groups that championed the president’s policies, such as Catholics United and Catholic Alliance for the Common Good.

She did not expect a phone call from the Internal Revenue Service in May 2010 telling her that her “business activities” would be audited. And when it came time for the audit, the IRS was only interested in the income she earned from writing for Catholic publications. The government did not probe the rest of her income, nor the salary earned by her husband.

“The income related to my writing is the tiniest part of my income as a family. The cost of the audit itself cost us more than what I make in a year in writing,” Hendershott told Our Sunday Visitor.

After filling out a detailed questionnaire and answering several probing questions over the phone, nothing came of the audit itself, although Hendershott said it prompted her to stop writing in at least one publication. She suspects that she was targeted for political reasons because she criticized the health care law.

“There were much bigger writers than me. Why did I get audited?” she asked. “I just think they were going after anyone who threatened Obamacare, and that was what most of my writing was about. They were going after a lot of people.”

Under scrutiny

The IRS and the Obama administration deny allegations that churches and conservative, pro-life organizations and individuals were targeted for political reasons, but several people and groups have come forward in recent weeks to say the IRS seemed to pay a lot of unusual attention to their activities.

For example, the IRS office in El Monte, Calif., asked several questions of Christian Voices for Life, a pro-life group in Fort Bend County, Texas., about the group’s prayer meetings and its educational seminars.

An IRS agent demanded that Coalition for Life of Iowa’s board members sign a sworn declaration that they would not picket or protest outside Planned Parenthood, according to the Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm dedicated to fostering respect in law for life, marriage and religious liberty.

Christian Voices for Life and Coalition for Life of Iowa finally got their tax-exempt statuses approved, but that might not have happened without the efforts of the Thomas More Society.

“All this has a real chilling effect on people. With these small grassroots organizations, if they had not gotten legal assistance with expertise in this area, it would have made it very difficult for them to proceed,” said Sally Wagenmaker, a special counsel for the Thomas More Society, which is handling the cases of three pro-life organizations that ran into roadblocks with the IRS.

Delay tactics

Wagenmaker told OSV the IRS — through questionnaires and wrong citations of applicable law — showed a willingness to delay the nonprofit organizations’ applications for tax-exempt statuses in such a way as to cause a serious detriment.

“And they just wanted to go out and pray,” Wagenmaker said.

On May 17, the Thomas More Society handed over 150 pages of analysis and evidence of the alleged political targeting of Christian and pro-life groups to the U.S. House of Representatives’ House Ways and Means Committee.

Thomas More Society President Thomas Brejcha, Executive Director Peter Breen and Wagenmaker prepared the legal memorandum that details the history of the alleged IRS misconduct in the cases of Christian Voices for Life, the Coalition for Life of Iowa, and Small Victories, a pro-life organization that received phone calls from the IRS every two to three weeks during 2011. In January 2012, the IRS closed its investigation into Small Victories without finding any illegal activities, according to the Thomas More Society.

“Christian Voices for Life is grateful to the Thomas More Society for providing the legal advice and action that led to the granting of our status,” said Marie McCoy, executive director of Christian Voices for Life. “Without their involvement, we might not have been successful in achieving the status that we should have been granted simply on the basis of our valid application.”

Other church-affiliated organizations that have claimed the IRS unfairly targeted them include the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse. The Rev. Franklin Graham said the IRS contacted his North Carolina-based ministry after it ran newspaper ads in April 2011 encouraging voters to support a state amendment against same-sex marriage. Graham said the IRS told him it would be reviewing the ministry’s tax records for 2010. The IRS subsequently upheld its tax-exempt status.

During the initial Congressional hearings into the unfolding IRS scandal — which broke out after it came to light that the agency had targeted tea party groups and similar conservative organizations — U.S. Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, said the IRS revelations appeared to be just the “latest example of a culture of coverups — and political intimidation — in this [Obama] administration.”

“It seems like the truth is hidden from the American people just long enough to make it through an election,” he said.

Calls for investigation

Steven T. Miller, the acting IRS commissioner who resigned after the scandal broke, called the agency’s actions “obnoxious,” but he told the House Ways and Means Committee that they were not driven by partisanship. Obama administration officials have said that neither they nor the president suspected any inappropriate behavior at the IRS in 2012, which is when the first media reports began emerging that the agency was sending unusually long and detailed questionnaires to tea party groups requesting tax-exempt status.

Still, congressional Republicans and some Democrats have called for an investigation. Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the committee, sent a six-page letter to Miller asking him to answer 41 questions about the IRS actions and whether administration officials had been in contact with the agency over the targeting.

The Treasury Department’s inspector general told officials there in June 2012 that he was auditing the IRS’ screening of politically active groups that were seeking tax exemptions, which indicate that administration officials were at least aware of the audit in the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election. Lois Lerner, who headed the IRS division overseeing tax-exempt organizations, was scheduled on May 22 as the first Obama administration official to be questioned by Congress on the matter.

‘Shell game’

It would not surprise William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, if presidential-level politics is playing a role in the IRS scandals.

Before Obama’s election in 2008, Donohue told OSV that Catholics United had requested that the IRS investigate the Catholic League for allegedly violating the IRS code on political activities. The IRS received that letter on June 5, 2008, but it was not until Nov. 24 — three weeks after Obama’s election — that the IRS contacted the Catholic League with the complaint, which was attached with press releases that Donohue had written.

Donohue said the IRS concluded that the Catholic League had violated its tax-exempt status by intervening in a political campaign, but that the status remained intact because the IRS said the Catholic League’s actions were unintentional, isolated, non-egregious and nonrecurring.

Donohue said the IRS complaint was “all nonsense,” and he added that he told the agency that he would continue to write on politically sensitive issues such as abortion.

“For them to say that you’re writing too much about politics is really laughable,” said Donohue, who added that he decided to tell his story after the IRS scandal broke. He said he is angered that the IRS apparently targeted groups and individuals that, unlike him, are new to the political game and can be more easily silenced.

“This definitely has a chilling effect on people,” said Donohue, who added: “There’s a shell game going on here, and that’s what I don’t like.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.