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IRS To Conservative Group: Please Tell Us About The Content Of Your Prayers

Among the more bizarre things to come out of today’s House Ways & Means Committee questioning of outgoing Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller and Treasury Department Inspector General J. Russell George, was the revelation that one Christian group that applied for 501(c)(4) status was asked to document the contents of its prayers:

While applying with the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status in 2009, an Iowa-based anti-abortion group was asked to provide information about its members’ prayer meetings, show documents sent by an IRS official to the organization.

On June 22, 2009, the Coalition for Life of Iowa received a letter from the IRS office in Cincinnati, Ohio that oversees tax exemptions requesting details about how often members pray and whether their prayers are “considered educational.”

“Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational as defined under 501(c)(3),” reads the letter, made public by the Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm that collected evidence about the IRS practices. “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 organizations spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization.”

The IRS is currently under fire for allegedly targeting conservative groups that applied for non-profit status in recent years. In response, two IRS officials have stepped down, including Acting Commissioner Steven Miller.

Copies of the relevant parts of the IRS letter are at the link, and here’s video of the exchange between Congressman Aaron Schock:

INSERT VIDEO

What ever one might say about the complexities that IRS employees were faced with in trying to judge the eligibility of groups for 501(c)(4) status, I can’t think of a single justification for asking a question like this. It guts right against the grain of the 1st Amendment, it’s designed to be intimidating, and, for me at least, it puts the lie to the argument that these inquiries were not, in some sense, motivated by politics.

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. BigFire says:

    Speaking as a conservative (but atheist) Chinese American: “Fuck You is my prayer”. Which part of separation of state and church don’t you understand?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I think this new tidbit of information supports the point I’ve been making since the news of the IRS thing broke. Clearly, there’s far too much discretion being exercised. They’re flying by the seats of their pants and making it up as they go along. Bad management.

    That’s even if you accept the validity of that question being asked of every applicant. Which is itself problematic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Anderson says:

    Not so fast, Doug. I was skeptical of “educational prayer meetings” over at the Volokh blog, and was roundly informed that prayer meetings ARE educational. Scripture is discussed and applied to whatever the group’s concerns are (diabolical Democrats?).

    So saying that IRS said “document the content of your PRAYERS” is misleading, unless you have some evidence you didn’t mention in your post.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 0

  4. Matt Parker says:

    yeah — I might be missing something, but the question is are these groups educational or political. Asking what they’re doing outside of a Planned Parenthood location seems pretty political to me. Seems like this was a request to justify the time/place/manner of the the prayer groups rather than the content of the prayers itself…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  5. Caj says:

    The IRS shouldn’t have asked them about their prayers they should have asked them what the hell they are doing asking for tax exemptions while pushing a political agenda!! Same goes for some churches telling the congregation who they should vote for. I know that’s true as I saw that here in some Florida churches, they even had messages on the information board outside the church!! All the while they are not paying a penny in taxes. It’s a disgrace and time it was stopped. Churches who involve themselves in politics should pay taxes just like the rest of us.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 3

  6. matt says:

    @Anderson: But but but That doesn’t sound nearly as nefarious!!!

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    You might want to go back and read Matt Bernius’s fine post distinguishing among the various classifications of organizations. If they were applying for 501(c)(4) status deductibility wasn’t an issue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  8. Jr says:

    Off-topic, but Miller looks he doesn’t really give a shit in that video.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. tps says:

    @Caj:

    That means most the ‘black’ churches will be paying taxes. Let the screaming begin.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  10. stonetools says:

    Let’s face it, isn’t the IRS line of questioning entirely appropriate? What IS the educational value of those prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood clinics.?Aren’t those simply by another name picketing and demonstrations?
    Now you do have a First Amendment right to protest and demonstrate against Planned Parenthood. You DON’T have a right to have those demonstrations and protests funded tax-free by anonymous donors. That’s the point. You want your political activities funded by anonymous benefactors, don ‘t apply for 501(C)4 status.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 1

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    The news report differs in a few particulars.

    1. They were applying for 501(c)(3) status not 501(c)(4) status. If I understand things correctly contributions 501(c)(3)s are deductible but they are not allowed to engage in political activities.

    2. 501(c)(4)s on the other hand are allowed to engage in political activities including endorsing candidates.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  12. stonetools says:

    Also too, are those people praying, for example, for the success of Todd Akins against that godless pro- choicer Claire McCaskill? If most of their “prayer meetings” are of that ilk, then there really might be legit church and state issues.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. Caj says:

    @tps:

    I don’t care whether they are black, white , green or yellow church members. If they involve themselves in pushing a political agenda they should pay taxes just like the rest of us.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  14. Megan McArdle says:

    @Matt Parker: The question is not “do you address political questions”–the Sierra Club does that every day. Nor “do you demonstrate in public”. The relevance for tax exemption is whether you are involved in elections.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  15. @Dave Schuler:

    1. They were applying for 501(c)(3) status not 501(c)(4) status. If I understand things correctly contributions 501(c)(3)s are deductible but they are not allowed to engage in political activities.

    2. 501(c)(4)s on the other hand are allowed to engage in political activities including endorsing candidates.

    Good info.

    I’m starting to think that the rallying cry shouldn’t be “You unfairly targeted me for political reasons” but “Damn this tax code. It’s too complicated!”

    Indeed, it seems to have gotten so complicated, the IRS doesn’t even get it. That’s the real problem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  16. Matt Parker says:

    @Megan McArdle: Understood. My comment was sloppy and imprecise. The question was in reference to the 501(c)3 regulations, and I was suggesting that praying outside a Planned Parenthood location doesn’t seem educational, but rather political.

    Ultimately, I think this whole affair has shown that it’s probably too hard to try to codify what is political and non-political, and that that is a poor basis upon which to determine whether the organization should be tax-exempt.

    That being said, I really want the investigations into this mess to tell me three things.
    1. How many TOTAL applications were submitted in the years in question.
    2. How many were conservative vs. liberal
    3. Whether the use of words like “tea party” and “constitution” was merely a reflection on the fact that there were just a ton of those organizations potentially improperly applying for status.

    I suspect that this was more about incompetence, i.e. we have too many applications to evaluate, so we’re going to just ask for additional clarification for anything that sounds political — which in 2010 was heavily tea party, than being nefarious.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  17. Latino_in_Boston says:

    I’m not seeing Doug’s point here.

    The IRS did not ask the content of the prayer, they asked how prayer meetings held outside Planned Parenthood (which to me seems prima facie evidence of being political not educational) could be considered educational. It also seems to me that if that’s all they do (pray outside of planned parenthood) then that hardly would seem to qualify, hence the question of how much time they spend doing things OTHER THAN praying. If anything, this just shows me the complexity of trying to parse what we mean by political and what by educational. With the system we have, it was bound to happen, and it will either happen again, or no one will ever get denied tax exempt status. Hell, if I was a huckster aiming to raise money for myself, while under the cover of educational intent, I would be applying for tax-exempt status right now, especially if I was conservative.

    “Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational as defined under 501(c)(3),” reads the letter, made public by the Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm that collected evidence about the IRS practices. “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 organizations spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization.”

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  18. anjin-san says:

    OTB readers to Doug: Please Document That The IRS Actually Asked Anyone About “The Content Of Their Prayers”

    Or were you just lazy, copy and pasting a misleading headline from Yahoo News?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  19. PD Shaw says:

    @Dave Schuler: Its probably more complicated since 501(c)(3)s can be charities; and they can also be religious organizations.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. Would someone explain how being opposed to abortion on demand, and saying so publicly while organized with others who think the same thing, is a political activity? There is no election or referendum at hand, there is no political candidate involved.

    Social issue? Sure. But political? Nope.

    An analogy: Whenever an execution is scheduled in Nashville’s state prison (which are thankfully rare), a group of students and faculty from Vanderbilt Divinity School protest outside the prison. They’ve never applied for a separate tax-exempt status, but the university (with a billion-dollar endowment) is tax exempt.

    The protests are organized using school facilities and school media; actively supported by the staff and faculty. BTW, I approve of this as I oppose the death penalty. But here are my questions:

    1. Are the faculty and staff who protest at the prison engaged in political activity?

    2. Should this (and other activities similar in nature) cause the IRS to reconsider Vanderbilt’s tax exempt status, or at least to remove exemption from monies or resources expended on these activities?

    Really would like someone to explain why abortion protesting should not be tax exempt but death-penalty protesting can be.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  21. Modulo Myself says:

    Note that none of the outraged parties are pointing out that the tax-exempt status of the Coalition for Life of Iowa was approved by the IRS.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  22. Dazedandconfused says:

    Is there a way to challenge anyone’s claim to being entitled to a tax exemption for political activity’s without “cutting across the grain of the 1st amendment”?

    The IRS has clearly been tasked with something they are ill-equipped to accomplish. Appears to be a task, though, that I would not wish on my worst enemy. Sheesh, what hath Citizens United wrought??

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  23. Chris C. says:

    Looks appropriate to me.

    First, the application was for a 501(c)(3) exemption, not 501(c)(4) , covering religious and educational groups. That means that, if the organization described itself as religious, but it appears to engage in a considerable amount of political work, it’s appropriate to try and determine how much of what it does really is religious or if that’s just a side activity — or worse, a dodge to avoid classification under another subsection with different requirements.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  24. Scott O says:

    The educational part of prayer meetings outside of Planned Parenthood is, if you pray for God to stop abortions for 30 years and nothing changes you come to realize that God must not mind abortion being legal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  25. Matt Bernius says:

    Here’s the key reason that I can think of — based on my research:
    “God, we pray that right-to-life candidate X will beat candidate Y.”
    “God, we pray that the people will see the light and elect candidate X so she can vote against Abortions.”

    What I’m not sure about — but think should be ok — is:
    “God, we pray that Abortion is overturned.”

    This is especially important if the group sends out prayer e-mails — not uncommon. All of these, it seems to me, would violate the 501(c)3 electioneering/politicing rules (i.e. no endorsements or telling people how to vote).

    But the real issue (as the rest of my articles are going to keep coming back to) is @Dave Schuler’s point here. Again, as we’ll see tomorrow with a deep read of the audit — the IRS still doesn’t think it can define what makes a 501(c)4 a 501(c)4 (think Justice Potter and pornography).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. Matt Bernius says:

    BTW, asking someone to “explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings,” is fundamentally different than asking people describe the content of prayers.

    Was there a specific request for prayer content that I missed?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  27. stonetools says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    No, you didn’t miss anything. But the title made for great click bait. Kudos, Doug.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  28. Megan McArdle says:

    @Matt Parker: Groups like the Sierra Club, etc, can hold events in front of a known polluter and no one thinks that this is a violation of their 501(c)(3) status; they are educating people about the issue of polluting. They can’t directly advocate for legal change or candidates, but privately encouraging people to not have abortions (or save more, or improve their job-hunting skills) isn’t inherently political just because abortion is a political issue. Or so I understand it. People are confusing “having an opinion on a political issue”–which lots and lots and lots of 501(c)(3)s do–with “political activity”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  29. Matt Bernius says:

    Actually, in Doug’s defense, the topic of prayer content came up in a different section.

    During a Ways and Means Committee hearing Friday on Capitol Hill, Illinois Republican Rep. Aaron Schock asked Miller specifically about the Campaign for Life of Iowa letter from 2009.

    “Would that be an inappropriate question to a 501(c)3 applicant?” Schock asked. The content of one’s prayers?

    “It pains me to say I can’t speak to that one either,” Miller said. He had said earlier that he would not be able to discuss individual cases during the hearing.

    “You don’t know whether or not that would be an appropriate question to ask?” Schock replied.

    “Speaking outside of this case, which I don’t know anything about, it would surprise me that that question was asked,” Miller said.
    [source: http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/irs-conservative-group-2009-members-pray-193833144.html

    Again, note that this involved a 501(c)3 application from an anti-abortion group. Please see my earlier posts.

    And in the mean time, ponder what type of system expects the IRS (a tax organization) to make decisions about what constitutes political speech.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  30. Matt Bernius says:

    @Donald Sensing:
    Again, it’s social until you start to *directly* or *all-but-directly* endorse anti-abortion candidates. At that point it’s a clear violation of 501(c)3 status. Which is why numerous organizations maintain (at “arms length”) both 501(c)3 (educational/relgious) and 501(c)4 (political/endorsement) wings.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. Matt Bernius says:

    @Megan McArdle:
    Correct.

    Again, part of this get’s to the question of endorsement, donations, and direct lobbying.

    What you describe is fine. But, for example, praying for the election of a candidate (or the loss of another) could cross the line, even if no specific order to vote for X is included.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  32. Tony W says:

    @BigFire:

    Which part of separation of state and church don’t you understand?

    To answer your question – the part where religious institutions get tax-exempt status

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  33. Scott O says:

    @Matt Bernius: Rep Schock may have brought up the topic of prayer content but I still haven’t seen where the IRS did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  34. Matt Parker says:

    @Megan McArdle: I understand and agree with your point about the activity in question. I’m just saying that if the IRS asked the Sierra Club to explain how a rally outside of Exxon headquarters was educational we wouldn’t think that question inappropriate.

    The headline suggests that the IRS was asking the organization what it was praying for as if to challenge the prayer content’s validity. Rather the question was to explain how the activity furthered the educational objectives of the group. This seems fair game to me.

    It may be unappetizing for the government to ask questions because it is prayer, but an advocacy group seeking preferential tax treatment shouldn’t be off limits simply because it is religious.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  35. Andre Kenji says:

    @Donald Sensing:

    Would someone explain how being opposed to abortion on demand, and saying so publicly while organized with others who think the same thing, is a political activity?

    Yes, it is. And that´s part of the problem: it´s very difficult to separate the promotion of public policy from partisan politics. That´s why in many countries you have campaign laws that inhibit the discussion of policy issues during elecitons , in other countries you have a complete mess(The US).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. Grewgills says:

    @Donald Sensing:
    1) yes
    2) yes

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  37. Hal 10000 says:

    As pointed out by the pro-Life groups’ lawyers, Planned Parenthood — which has 501(c)3 status is allowed to engage in issue advocacy. In fact, they have a whole section of their web page on advocacy. I read through the documents and, even though I am pro-choice, I found myself becoming more and more angered by the IRS. The org was very clear: we will not be endorsing candidates, we will be educating people, here are are organization similar to us that have 501(c)3 status, here is our literature. And the IRS kept probing more and more, going further and further afield.

    Please Document That The IRS Actually Asked Anyone About “The Content Of Their Prayers”

    Page 46: “Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of planned parenthood are considered educational … Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings”.

    Not in the exact words, but I think this is pretty close to the headline, no? Their attorneys certainly did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  38. anjin-san says:

    Not in the exact words, but I think this is pretty close to the headline, no?

    No.

    Their attorneys certainly did.

    Their attorneys do what they are paid to do. Do you claim to know what they actually think?

    As someone who does not participate in organized religion, and who does write a reasonably large check to the IRS every year, I am starting to resent the concept that religious groups can enjoy tax exempt status, and the IRS is not allowed to ask reasonable questions about their activities that might pertain for eligibility for said status.

    It’s clear that there are problems at the IRS. I am not sure that asking a religious group reasonable questions about their activities is one of them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  39. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    And in the mean time, ponder what type of system expects the IRS (a tax organization) to make decisions about what constitutes political speech.

    Just wanted to highlight that. Really gets to the heart of it, IMHO.

    And thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge, of course.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  40. Tyrell says:

    Shut down the IRS. Too many agencies and bureaucracies have too much power. They do not have to follow due process or the Constitution in dealing with businesses or individuals. Dangerous!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  41. Wow, a group failed to document something as required by law, the IRS requested additional documentation, rubber-stamped it, and now it’s biggest damn scandal ever.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  42. Hal 10000 says:

    @Matt Parker:

    I understand and agree with your point about the activity in question. I’m just saying that if the IRS asked the Sierra Club to explain how a rally outside of Exxon headquarters was educational we wouldn’t think that question inappropriate.

    But the point is that they aren’t asking those kinds of questions about the Sierra Club.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  43. anjin-san says:

    @ Tyrell

    They do not have to follow due process or the Constitution in dealing with businesses or individuals.

    Pretty serious accusations. Can you explain exactly what you mean?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  44. anjin-san says:

    But the point is that they aren’t asking those kinds of questions about the Sierra Club.

    Do you know this for a fact?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  45. fred says:

    Knock the IRS employees all you want but I support them 100 percent as they were doing their jobs after hundreds of Tea Parties were formed to confront Pres Obama and they were political. Just go back and look at the signs at their rallies. If they had not been targeted the story today in the press would be that IRS granted them tax exemption and that is wrong. IRS just cannot win. Some mainstream journalists will try to make a story our of anything to get a promotion, etc…no matter how much harm is done to our political system and daily lives.
    By the way, all organizations have bad apples and that applies to Wall Street, Exxon, BP, Morgan Stanley, etc, etc.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  46. medusa says:

    There are a thousand shades of grey when a liberal or progressive is running the country. If a Republican is in charge, the slightest rumor of scandal is prima facie proof of corruption or abuse of power.

    You can’t be trusted because you have no principles. We’re watching carefully. We know. We are prepared. You are making an enormous miscalculation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  47. Matt Parker says:

    @Hal 10000: Sure, but the Sierra Club didn’t apply in 2010 during a flood of new applications from organizations with fairly political seeming objectives.

    Also, see this article for what some were counseling contemporaneously: http://chicagolawpartners.com/resources/forum-law-review-mar-2010.pdf

    Also – people were beginning to write about the increasing abuses of 501(c)3 organizations as early as 2006: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=947905

    Look — the point is it seems much more likely to me that this was just administrative idiocy during a time when one office was trying to find a way to triage incoming applications, during a time when these keywords were probably fairly effective ways to parse political vs. social organizations. Frankly, this seems more like a shortsighted approach to sorting the good apples from the bad — and is fairly reminiscent of conservatives like Peter King who complain that the TSA is being too PC by not racially profiling passenger screenings.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  48. John says:

    @Latino_in_Boston:

    Depends on how you look at “Political” and “Social Welfare”. If someone truly believes that killing a fetus is murder than it damn well falls under “Social Welfare” as they are arguably saving a life. It doesn’t matter one bit if YOU believe abortion is murder or not as they do. The IRS has a legitimate question on whether they are supporting particular candidates but NOT on whether they support abortion or not.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0