IRS Commissioner Steven Miller was already having a rough day at the House Ways and Means Committee when one particularly hot question shoved him into the lower depths of a church-state inferno.
The question concerned a letter sent by IRS officials in Cincinnati to the Coalition for Life of Iowa, linked to its application for tax-exempt status.
"Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational," said the letter, which was released by the Thomas More Society, which often defends traditional religious groups.
"Organizations exempt under 501(c)(3) may present opinions with scientific or medical facts. Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings. Also, please provide the percentage of time your organization spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization."
Welcome back to the religious liberty wars of 2013, in a scene captured by the omnipresent eye of C-SPAN.
Questioning this government entanglement in issues of doctrine and even worship, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) asked: "Would that be an inappropriate question to a 501(c)(3) applicant? The content of one's prayers?"
Miller, already on his way out as IRS leader, had stressed he would not address individual cases. Thus, he replied: "It pains me to say I can't speak to that one either. ... Speaking outside of this case, which I don't know anything about, it would surprise me that that question was asked."
IRS officials have, of course, confessed that they inappropriately targeted conservative groups -- especially those with "tea party" or "patriot" in their names -- for extra scrutiny when they sought nonprofit status. Allegations of abuse or harassment have since broadened to include groups conducting grassroots projects to "make America a better place to live," to promote classes about the U.S. Constitution or to raise support for Israel.
However, it now appears the IRS also challenged some individuals and religious groups that, while defending key elements of their faith traditions, have criticized projects dear to the current White House, such as health care reform, abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
At the heart of these fights are questions often raised about a variety of groups on the left and the right. Was it partisan politics when African-American churches worked to promote economic justice during campaigns when those efforts helped President Barack Obama? What about liberal religious groups that stressed voting green on environmental issues during campaigns when those efforts often led to support for Democrats?
In recent years, religious conservatives have been accused of turning projects linked to their teachings on abortion and marriage into vaguely partisan efforts to oppose Obama, while indirectly supporting his opponents.
Thus, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the global Samaritan's Purse humanitarian project faced IRS review -- for the first time ever. During the most recent White House campaign, the Graham organization ran ads against gay marriage in North Carolina. In one, the elder Graham was quoted saying: "I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman."
In a letter to Obama, the Rev. Franklin Graham claimed: "I believe that someone in the administration was targeting and attempting to intimidate us. This is morally wrong and unethical -- indeed some would call it 'un-American.' ... I do not believe that the IRS audit of our two organizations last year is a coincidence -- or justifiable."
Meanwhile, on the religious left, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is convinced that the younger Franklin is -- no coincidence at all -- drawing justifiable scrutiny because of "his disgust with President Obama."
While the Graham ads didn't mention politicians by name, this was "clearly an effort by one of the Graham families' tax-exempt groups to directly affect the outcome of the election," he argued in the "On Faith" forum at The Washington Post website. "If this brazen action led to IRS scrutiny, I'm fine with that. My only regret is that the agency didn't yank the BGEA's tax-exempt status for doing so.
"The problem isn't that the IRS is being too aggressive in this area," said Lynn. "It's that its enforcement efforts have been sporadic, unfocused and tepid."
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
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