IOWA CITY, Iowa — When a small anti-abortion group in Iowa sought nonprofit status, the Internal Revenue Service asked its board to promise not to organize protests outside Planned Parenthood and demanded to know how its prayer meetings and protest signs were educational.
Although the Coalition for Life of Iowa's application was ultimately approved in 2009, the tax collection agency's treatment of that and other anti-abortion groups has gotten new attention in the wake of an ongoing scandal over the alleged targeting of conservative groups.
The IRS apologized for singling out tea party groups for scrutiny in 2010 and 2011, but Republicans now are seizing on the coalition's case to question whether the effort may have been broader and started earlier.
Groups with tax-exempt status, known as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, must have educational, religious or charitable purposes and cannot be involved in elections or engage in substantial lobbying activity. But they can conduct educational campaigns about their causes that do not have to be balanced, and their members retain their constitutional rights to assemble and protest.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Tuesday the IRS was out of bounds in seeking information on the group's prayer activities and a guarantee that it wouldn't protest at Planned Parenthood.
"That's outrageous that that statement would be made by anybody in government, that somehow you've got to compromise your First Amendment rights," Grassley said. "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 Steven Miller told Grassley he was unaware of the case, but apologized generally for poor service.
The Iowa group isn't the only anti-abortion organization that appears to have been singled out for scrutiny. In 2011, another IRS employee asked Christian Voices for Life of Fort Bend County in Texas whether it provided "education on both sides of the issues" in its programs and whether its members try to speak with anyone entering medical clinics, correspondence shows.
Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., said last week that the Iowa and Texas groups faced unfair IRS intrusion into their activities because of "political and religious bias" that chilled their constitutional rights. He turned over their IRS correspondence to the inspector general for tax administration and demanded an explanation.
Both groups received tax-exempt status after seeking help from the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal group. But counsel Sally Wagenmaker said the cases were troubling because the IRS asked inappropriate questions about their activities even though their applications should've raised no red flags, and they were forced to retain lawyers to win approval.
"Is it something bigger? I can't say. But is it of concern? Absolutely. Now the IRS is getting into content," she said. "The common thread here is scrutiny on a content basis and seeming to really bend over backwards on the conservative side."
Tax experts said the IRS inquiries appeared to be misguided attempts to ensure that groups were educational in nature and did not interfere with the rights of patients and employees.
"I can see what they are raising, but it seems to be there are very strong First Amendment issues here," said Richard Koontz, director of the Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center. "You don't want to let one nonprofit stop the activities of another. But you certainly want them to be able to criticize from dawn to dusk what another nonprofit is doing."
The Iowa group considers its mission to educate citizens about "the sanctity of life" and it has held forums on issues such as stem-cell research and euthanasia. Members also routinely walk and pray outside Planned Parenthood in Cedar Rapids. Sue Martinek, the group's president, submitted its application for tax-exempt status in October 2008.
An IRS employee identifying herself as "Ms. Richards" from the Cincinnati office responded in April 2009 that she needed more information about its events, including all "advertisements, schedules, syllabuses, handouts, a summary of each person's speech" and more, records show.
The coalition turned over those records, including Catholic writings opposing embryonic stem cell research and cloning and brochures handed out at events, including one that accused Planned Parenthood of promoting promiscuous behavior. In follow-up calls, "Ms. Richards" asked Martinek whether the group protested outside Planned Parenthood, Martinek said.
"Ms. Richards" informed her that its prayer gatherings there would be permissible – as long as "what we were doing would not be construed as protesting or picketing" and didn't involve harassment, according to a June 2009 email that Martinek sent to Wagenmaker. "Ms. Richards" said its application would be approved if board members promised in writing that the group would not protest outside Planned Parenthood, Martinek wrote.
Martinek said she and others were ready to sign such a statement, but that one board member saw it as a free speech violation and contacted Thomas More Society to protest.
Martinek sent a letter to IRS saying that members had debated its request not to organize Planned Parenthood protests, but wanted definitions of "organize, picketing, protesting" to ensure compliance. Rather than answer those questions, "Ms. Richards" responded with a letter seeking an explanation of how "prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood are considered educational."
Wagenmaker responded with a letter saying the inquiries were legally improper and calling for the IRS to grant the application promptly. She said the coalition had organized one event to pray the rosary at Planned Parenthood and that members otherwise assembled there peacefully on their own, carrying signs such as "Women deserve better than abortion" that do not contain graphic images.
Days later, the IRS sent its approval notification.
"It was a little weird and it seemed like they wanted lots of information, but we wanted our status," Martinek said. "The IRS is so powerful, we were just hesitant to get on their bad list."
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President Barack Obama
"This is pretty straightforward," Obama said at a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/13/obama-irs-scandal_n_3266577.html" target="_blank">press conference</a>. "If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that is outrageous, and there is no place for it, and they have to be held fully accountable, because the IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity and people have to have confidence that they are applying the laws in a non-partisan way. You should feel that way regardless of party." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
Rubio <a href="http://www.rubio.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=bc8ce2a9-4e95-4792-8744-501d0c1b63b3" target="_blank">penned a letter</a> to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew demanding the IRS commissioner's resignation. The letter begins: "Recent revelations about the Internal Revenue Service’s selective and deliberate targeting of conservative organizations are outrageous and seriously concerning. This years-long abuse of government power is an assault on the free speech rights of all Americans. This direct assault on our Constitution further justifies the American people’s distrust in government and its ability to properly implement our laws." (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)
"The admission by the Obama administration that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political opponents echoes some of the most shameful abuses of government power in 20th-century American history. Today, we are left with serious questions: who is ultimately responsible for this travesty? What actions will the Obama administration take to hold them accountable? And have other federal agencies used government powers to attack Americans for partisan reasons? House Republicans have made oversight of federal agencies a top priority on behalf of the American people, and I applaud the work that members such as Charles Boustany, Darrell Issa and Jim Jordan have done to bring this issue to light. I also strongly support Sen. McConnell’s call for a transparent, government-wide review to ensure similar practices are not happening elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy," Boehner said in a <a href="http://www.speaker.gov/press-release/speaker-boehner-statement-irs-targeting-conservative-groups" target="_blank">statement</a>. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.)
Buchanan also <a href="http://buchanan.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4787:buchanan-to-treasury-secretary-the-nations-trust-in-government-was-betrayed&catid=1:latest-news" target="_blank">wrote a letter</a> calling for the IRS commissioner's resignation. His letter reads: "On March 22, 2012, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee which oversees the IRS, we heard then-Commissioner Douglas Shulman clearly state that the IRS did not engage in the practices of which it is now accused saying "there is absolutely no targeting." Yet, less than a year earlier, Commissioner Shulman's own deputy, Lois Lerner, was made aware that such malpractice had indeed occurred. It became evident that groups with "tea party" or "patriot" in their names were extremely vulnerable to auditing harassment. Even nonprofit organizations that sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution were unfairly singled out for scrutiny. The nation's trust in government was betrayed by this unconscionable behavior. On behalf of my constituents, your immediate response is not only warranted but essential to clearing up a matter that would have our founding fathers rolling in their graves." (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, File)
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.)
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)
Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.)
"It is unconscionable that the IRS deliberately targeted individuals based on their political beliefs. Absolutely no one should come under extra scrutiny from the IRS because of their political affiliation. It’s simply un-American," Paulsen said in a <a href="http://paulsen.house.gov/press-releases/paulsen-statement-on-fridays-hearing-examining-irs-targeting-conservative-groups/" target="_blank">statement</a>. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas)
“I have long been concerned with reports that the IRS has unfairly targeted some political groups over others – a charge that they have repeatedly denied. In March 2012, I sent IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman a letter demanding an explanation of this unacceptable behavior. Now, more than a year later, the IRS has admitted to what we have long suspected – it was targeting tea party groups. The IRS’s actions are unacceptable, and I commend Chairman Dave Camp and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany for moving forward with a full investigation. We will continue to work to ensure there are protections in place so no American, regardless of political affiliation, has their right to free speech threatened by the IRS," Marchant said in a <a href="http://marchant.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=333635" target="_blank">statement</a>. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.)
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)
<i>CORRECTION: An earlier version of this slideshow incorrectly identified Udall as a Republican.</i>
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.)
Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.)
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)
“Today’s revelation that the IRS targeted average Americans using taxpayer dollars solely for disagreeing with them politically is completely unacceptable from this Administration. “Partisan politics have consistently characterized this White House, and the Administration must take immediate disciplinary action and ensure American citizens are not subject to this type of Orwellian persecution again," Cornyn said in a <a href="http://www.cornyn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=NewsReleases&ContentRecord_id=ebc9edeb-f748-45cf-a6b3-0143c6cb41c0" target="_blank">statement</a>. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)