IRS Didn't Just Hunt the Tea Party: Liberal Churches Also Targets

Republicans are still furious over IRS scrutiny of non-profit groups with "Tea Party" and "patriots" in their names, but the life of the scandal depends entirely upon the political affiliation of the hundreds of other groups investigated by tax officials.

Only 25% of the 300 scrutinized groups seeking non-profit status were reportedly affiliated with right-wing causes. Whether the rest aligned with left-leaning causes like abortion and climate change will not be known until the entire list is released. The IRS told Gawker today that the full list has yet to be made public.

President Obama said he only learned of the Cincinnati office's tactics on Friday but "will not tolerate it." Republicans in Congress are calling for investigations.

IRS examinations of politically vocal non-profits is not new—the most recent outrage to make the national news was in 2006, when tax officials threatened and persecuted liberal churches during the presidency of George W. Bush.

But as the harassment of both liberal and conservative churches in 2004 and 2006 shows, it is sometimes difficult to create a partisan scandal out of some bureaucrats interpreting the ridiculously vague tax code prohibitions on non-profits engaging in political campaigns.

In today's White House briefing, Obama spokesman Jay Carney did at least remind the press that a Bush appointee was in charge of the IRS during the 2012 campaign season. That's when about 300 new 501(c) applicants were reviewed by compliance officers at the Cincinnati IRS office overseeing the thousands of new self-declared non-political non-profits.

But with new evidence from internal IRS watchdogs that non-profit groups with conservative, anti-government and anti-tax names had been scrutinized since 2010, the Tea Party is back in the news for the first time since it was blamed for the Republicans' dismal showing in November 2012.

The IRS has yet to reveal the non-Tea Party non-profits investigated in 2012, but at least one other politically motivated wave of harassment was revealed in 2006, when tax officials went after a liberal church in Pasadena.

All Saints Episcopal Church was threatened with the loss of the church's tax-exempt status because the congregation allegedly heard political speech from the pulpit. The church's then-rector, the Reverend George F. Regas was accused of being anti-war in his sermons.

These sermons took place during the 2004 presidential campaign between George W. Bush and John Kerry. During the Bush Administration and many presidencies before it, actively agitating against one of Washington's wars will get the IRS sniffing into your business—even when your stated business is not for profit.

The witch hunt of liberal churches happened under the leadership of IRS commissioner Mark Whitty Everson, a Republican appointed by George W. Bush in 2003. Another Bush appointee, Douglas Schulman, headed the IRS during the scrutiny of Tea Party groups seeking non-profit status in 2012. Schulman's term ended on November 11, after the 2012 election.

At the same time IRS compliance agents were demanding all papers and email related to sermonizing in the liberal Pasadena church, right-leaning churches across the country aggressively registered voters and brought Republican candidates to Sunday services to give campaign speeches. One such non-political campaign speech was given by Pastor Mac Hammond of the Living Word Christian Center in Minnesota, while introducing fringe right-wing Congresswoman Michele Bachmann:

"Many of you know Michele, know of her pursuit of the United States Congressional seat," Pastor Hammond said from the pulpit just two weeks before the 2006 midterm elections. "But you know we can’t publicly endorse as a church and would not for any candidate, but I can tell you personally that I’m going to vote for Michele Bachmann, because I’ve come to know her, what she stands for, and I want her to share her testimony with you tonight."

That kind of "we can't but I'm doing it anyway" winking political work is common to the world of American 501(c) organizations. In 2008, the IRS reported that 75% of the non-profits prohibited from political campaigning were campaigning for political parties, candidates and measures. Since the Moral Majority days when lower-middle-class suburban and Southern whites gave Ronald Reagan two terms, the Republican party has openly embraced white churches as election partners.

And in cities where the fables of religion hold less sway, the wealthier and better-educated residents have shown little interest in going to church unless it's wrapped up in the feel-good social justice of community gardens, gay clergy and environmentalism.

"Unfortunately, § 501(c)(3) does not explicitly define 'political activity,'" the Houston Business and Tax Journal wrote in a 2008 report. "Nor is it defined in other sections of the Code that discuss political organizations. The resulting ambiguity has made it difficult for tax-exempt organizations to confidently advocate for their causes and for the I.R.S. to investigate and review an organization’s taxexempt status."

That the IRS under a Republican administration deliberately targeted liberal California churches has been forgotten in the manufactured outrage of the Republican Party's Tea Party-IRS scandal. That the IRS was still under the control of a Bush appointee during the 2012 scrutiny of new non-profits that self-identified with the Republican Party's Tea Party movement is also little mentioned, because the president is a popular Democrat.

During the 2006 scrutiny of liberal churches, it was a Democrat congressman who demanded investigations into the IRS practice of targeting non-profits with Democratic leanings:

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who unsuccessfully tried to launch a Government Accountability Office investigation into the IRS' probes of churches nationwide last year, called the summons "a very disturbing escalation" of the agency's scrutiny of All Saints.

"I don't want religious organizations to become arms of campaigns," he said. "But they should be able to talk about issues of war and peace without fear of losing tax-exempt status. If they can't, they'll have little to say from the pulpit."

The Internal Revenue Service press office told Gawker on Monday that a full list of scrutinized groups and political terms would be sent by email, if it's ever released at all.

[Photo via Getty Images.]