IRS targeting goes back decades, houses of worship have been main targets

The big news recently has been that the IRS has targeted hundreds of organizations for audits, refusal of non-profit status, and other bureaucratic ordeals simply because of what they say. People are outraged that the IRS, which is supposed to enforce the law in an evenhanded way, is actually pursuing political goals.

What most people don't realize is that the IRS has been acting as the speech police for decades. Ever since 1954, when then-Senator Lyndon Johnson pushed for a law enabling the IRS to punish non-profits who opposed him politically, the IRS has been in the business of government censor. What’s worse is that one of the biggest targets of this censorship has been religious people and houses of worship. In fact, one of the IRS’s first targets in the 1950s was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was subjected to a searching IRS audit because of his religious advocacy for civil rights for African-Americans.

The IRS of course has the crushing power to deny or revoke the non-profit status of a synagogue, church, or mosque if it says something the IRS decides is too "political." But it can also put houses of worship and other religious organizations through the wringer of intrusive, costly, and time-consuming audits.

There are two ways the targeting works. One way is for an outside group, often one that is anti-religion, to file a complaint asking the IRS to investigate a church they don’t like. The IRS responds to the complaint by opening an investigation and asking the church often hundreds of questions about its activities, with the threat of revocation of non-profit status. This is what lawyers call “selective enforcement” and it is unconstitutional. No one should be singled out in this way, especially because of collusion between the IRS and outside groups with an ax to grind.

The second way the censorship starts is for IRS officials to take their lead from high government officials, including the President, to decide which groups to target for disfavor. This is apparently what happened to the “tea party” groups, but religious groups have also been targeted in this way.

Don't believe it? Just ask Billy Graham. Last fall, the famed Christian evangelist publicly advocated on behalf of a ballot measure in his home state of North Carolina, taking a position that the President and other high government officials publicly opposed. The tax man was knocking at the door almost immediately. And while the expensive, time-consuming audit eventually ended without any finding of wrongdoing by Graham, a message was sent to every other religious group that might oppose government policy: the IRS can use its audit powers to harass you or shut you down simply for saying what you believe. That kind of intimidation is wrong--and unconstitutional.

Another example of IRS intimidation came in 2004, just before the presidential election.  An Episcopal priest in Southern California preached a sermon attacking President Bush for, among other things, his decision to invade Iraq. The sermon was based on the priest’s heartfelt beliefs and was shared only with the audience that voluntarily came to hear it in church on a Sunday morning. Yet -- at the urging of outside groups -- the IRS decided that it needed to investigate and conducted a multi-year audit. Fortunately the defendant church could hire attorneys who were former IRS officials that were able to fight back. But imagine what happens to smaller, poorer congregations who don’t have the means to defend themselves. Eventually the IRS closed the investigation with nothing more than a warning not to do it again.

But not do what again? Not preach about moral matters that have a political connection? That would mean that religious issues stop being religious once a politician starts talking about them. More importantly, where does the IRS get the authority to override the First Amendment?  If freedom of speech and freedom of religion are to mean anything, government bureaucrats can’t be allowed to decide what rabbis, priests, imams, and pastors  can preach.

Religious people can and do disagree over whether pastors, priests, or rabbis should preach about the political issues of the day. That is their right. But surely all Americans can agree -- especially after the abuses that have come to light in the past week--that the time for the tax man to censor sermons must come to an end.

By Daniel Blomberg and Eric Rassbach, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty