CHICAGO — President Barack Obama expressed outrage after an audit went public May 14, showing a pattern of IRS harassment of conservative groups seeking nonprofit tax-exempt status. The whistle was blown. The media reported it, and Obama promised serious action, "so that such conduct never happens again."
Yet pro-life organizations say little has changed. They endure harassing IRS questions about their prayers — months after the scandal broke — and IRS agents continue telling them to promote abortion as part of their ministries.
"Even after the scandal went public, it was nonstop," said Peter Shinn, director of Cherish Life Ministries in Arlington, Va. "They continued stiff-arming us and doing everything they could to block our approval."
"The agent kept asking about our prayer activities and said we had to pray from all sides," he recalled.
According to Shinn, to "pray from all sides" was part of the agent’s insistence that his organization teach about the option of abortion while defending innocent life.
Invasive questions continued through most of July, and the group was not granted nonprofit status until July 26 — 16 months after it applied — and only after lawyers intervened on the group’s behalf.
"Pro-life groups are still asked to describe their prayer activities and to talk about why their prayers are charitable," said Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel for the Thomas More Society of Chicago. "By definition, religious activity is automatically charitable under the IRS Code."
Furthermore, the First Amendment of the Constitution and two centuries of case law ostensibly prevent government from interfering in the free exercise of religion, a point made to the IRS by Chicago attorney Sally Wagenmaker. She represented Cherish Life Ministries after the scandal broke and encountered the same line of questioning Shinn described.
Wagenmaker began speaking with "Mrs. R. Medley" of the Cincinnati IRS office on May 23 — nine days after Obama promised to crack down — and was told Cherish Life Ministries’ application was on "suspension" status.
In a memo submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee July 24, Wagenmaker described Medley’s demeanor throughout the negotiations as "hostile."
Wagenmaker said Medley "had a hard time letting me talk and provide information to her" and continuously interrogated her about the client’s "prayer presence at the abortion facility."
Wagenmaker asked Medley why the "prayer presence" would be a problem, given the client’s "First Amendment rights of assembly, free speech and religious liberty. She [Medley] would not respond."
Emerald Coast Coalition for Life of Pensacola, Fla., applied for 501(c)3 status on June 7, 2012. The group’s problems began with Lois Lerner, director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division.
Lerner responded to Emerald Coast’s application Sept. 7, three months after the group filed it, telling the applicants the application would have to be reviewed by an "exempt-organization specialist."
Four days before the May 14 release of the damning IRS audit, Lerner made headlines by publicly apologizing at a meeting of the American Bar Association for what she termed "absolutely inappropriate" actions by the IRS against conservative groups. Then-acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller testified to Congress that he told Lerner how to make the revelation and apology using a planted question at the meeting. Lerner pled the Fifth Amendment at a May 22 congressional hearing, refusing to answer questions.
The scandal has done little to help resolve Emerald Coast’s dilemma. On June 19 — more than a month after the scandal broke and a year after the group applied — IRS exempt-organizations specialist Tyrone Thomas of the California office sent Emerald Coast a letter demanding additional information. Emerald Coast hired a lawyer, but the IRS had not granted nonprofit status as of Aug. 9.
Patrick Castle, president of Life Runners in Rapid City, S.D., said his group’s IRS troubles cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars in lost donations. The group participates in marathons and other foot races, with most of its 1,477 members wearing pro-life shirts that display Jeremiah 1:5: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you."
The group applied in March 2012 and spent more than a year answering inappropriate questions about prayers and whether it advocates abortion.
"Their anchor question was: ‘What alternative do you provide to pro-life?’ I first saw that question and wondered whether they wanted me to hand out directions to Planned Parenthood. The alternative to pro-life is death," Castle told the Register.
An attorney who runs with Life Runners began battling the IRS and eventually passed the case to a Texas lawyer who specializes in taxes. In the meantime, the group was unable to raise funds with tax-exempt status for three major events, including a run it hosted in conjunction with the national March for Life — an annual pro-life event in Washington that drew an estimated 650,000 participants this past year.
"These were all big events, and we couldn’t tell potential donors we were a nonprofit because the IRS was stalling," Castle said.
Life Runners now has IRS approval, but Castle believes the organization obtained the nonprofit status only because of the scandal. Nothing was going well, and, suddenly, things changed.
"My letter from the IRS is dated the 14th of May, the same day the inspector general’s report was released. So I put two and two together," said Castle, who is the medical support squadron commander of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
Though the IRS staged Lerner’s apology and may have attempted other damage control, attorney Breen said "pro-abortion ideology" lives on at the IRS.
Breen’s firm presented Congress with 250 pages of documentation Aug. 1 that he describes as "irrefutable evidence" of ongoing IRS harassment.
"Targeting began in 2009, after the Obama administration took office," Breen said. "We were not seeing this sort of harassment by questioning before that time."
He characterizes questions about prayers and "both sides" of the abortion debate as "absurd."
"They don’t expect Planned Parenthood (a 501(c)3 abortion business) to promote caring pregnancy centers or other pro-life organizations," Breen said. "Nothing in the law says a pro-life organization has to teach the other side."
Other pro-life, pro-marriage and Catholic groups and individuals came forward with complaints of IRS harassment soon after the issue broke into national prominence this spring. And in May, Rep. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, blasted the IRS for abusing an Iowa-based pro-life organization.
"It appears the IRS offered this group a quid pro quo: You can become a charity if you don’t protest in front of a Planned Parenthood."
Outgoing acting IRS Commissioner Miller responded by apologizing for generally poor service.
While no evidence has been disclosed directly linking the White House with the IRS actions involving pro-life groups seeking tax-exempt status, Breen believes fault for the alleged harassment still rests with President Obama, because presidential appointees run the IRS.
"Even though it’s illegal to play politics with the IRS, the hampering of pro-life groups that have opposite views of the president can only help the administration politically."
Breen contends Americans may never fully grasp the potential magnitude of the abuse.
"We know what they have done to our clients," Breen said. "We just hope there aren’t a lot of small start-up groups out there that have simply given up, and no one will ever hear from them."
Wayne Laugesen writes