Keep your faith to yourself. That was the message Ania Joseph, executive director of Pro-Life Revolution, and her lawyer at Alliance Defending Freedom took away from conversations with an IRS agent during a two-and-a-half-year application process for tax-exempt status that ended just last week. Listen here.
As we’ve seen in other recently reported cases, an IRS agent insisted on shielding proponents of legal abortion from potential communications from a pro-life group. Erik Stanley, Pro-Life Revolution’s lawyer, talks about the case and the implications.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “You have to know your boundaries,” an IRS agent told Ania Joseph of Pro-Life Revolution. How did you interpret that when you first heard it? What are the boundaries of a pro-life group like theirs?
ERIK STANLEY: I interpreted the IRS agent’s statement as attempting to impose an unconstitutional standard for granting tax exemption. The agent had told Pro-Life Revolution on numerous occasions that it could not “confront” other people with the views of the organization and that it had to remain “neutral” on the issue of abortion. That standard is unconstitutional because it prohibits a group from advocating the truth of its beliefs. The IRS should not be in the position of mandating that groups seeking a tax exemption remain neutral on controversial issues. That’s not only unconstitutional, but ridiculously impractical. For example, churches are exempt under the tax code but they do not have to remain “neutral” on the issue of religion.
The only “boundaries” on exempt organizations are those that are in the law, namely, that they serve a charitable function, that they refrain from endorsing or opposing political candidates (an unconstitutional restriction we are attempting to challenge by our Pulpit Freedom Sunday initiative), and that they only engage in an insubstantial amount of lobbying. There is no boundary imposed in the law that an organization not advocate its viewpoint.
LOPEZ: What was most worrisome about what Pro-Life Revolution was told by an IRS agent?
STANLEY: What was most worrisome was that the IRS was imposing an unconstitutional standard on Pro-Life Revolution. It attempted to say that Pro-Life Revolution could not be considered educational for exemption purposes unless it met the “full and fair exposition” standard that requires an exempt organization to present a “full and fair exposition” of the facts to allow a person to make up their own mind on the issue. This standard was held to be unconstitutional by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1980. The D.C. Circuit said the standard was unconstitutionally vague and could mask viewpoint discrimination. It was very troubling in this case that the agent in charge of granting or denying the exemption request was using a standard held to be unconstitutional over thirty years ago.
LOPEZ: Could it be that this was just a mislead agent doing what she understood to be her job?
STANLEY: No, I don’t think that could be the case because I pointed out to her in a letter that her standard was unconstitutional. In response to my letter, she doubled down on the standard and even made up an additional standard that is found nowhere in the case law or the IRS regulations. This agent seemed ideologically opposed to the pro-life position and was intent on ensuring that Pro-Life Revolution not be able to advocate its viewpoint on the issue of abortion.
LOPEZ: Was Pro-Life Revolution looking for trouble with the name of the organization? Could the militancy of some of the language on their website – comparing abortion in America to the evils of Nazi Germany — be a fair trigger?
STANLEY: Ania Joseph, president of Pro-Life Revolution, started the organization because of the experience of her grandfather. He was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and was suffering from typhus near the end of the war. The Nazis were closing down the concentration camps in an attempt to cover up the fact that they existed. They were shooting the sick prisoners and bulldozing them into a ditch and then freeing the remainder to wander in the woods. Ania’s grandfather was saved by some friends who propped him up and told him to look alive to avoid being shot. Had they not saved him, Ania never would have been born. Her life has a powerful connection to the pro-death policies and practices of the Nazi party during World War II, so it is natural for her to make that connection to abortion today.
But more important, an organization’s name should not trigger advanced scrutiny by the IRS. That type of policy was the catalyst for the IRS scandal related to the tea-party groups. And that scandal demonstrates that when the IRS places advanced scrutiny on an organization based on a controversial name or position held, what it is actually doing is engaging in unconstitutional viewpoint-based discrimination.
LOPEZ: Is it particularly stark in this case, since the woman the IRS agent wound up lecturing fled from Communism?
STANLEY: Ania’s case is particularly striking given her background. She grew up in Poland under Soviet rule. She remembers being forced to learn Russian and was a part of the anti-Communist youth underground movement. She was there when the Communists fell in Poland and emigrated to America because it was the land of the free. She frankly deserved better than she got from our government. The IRS became the speech police in this case.
LOPEZ: Is this incident especially alarming given that the IRS will be the enforcer of the HHS mandate?
STANLEY: This case demonstrates the axiom that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The IRS is very powerful and is largely unaccountable for how it wields that power. Any tax attorney will tell you that the IRS holds all the cards for how, when, and against whom it goes to court. This is not the time to be expanding the power of this dysfunctional bureaucracy. The IRS must have oversight, transparency, and safeguards to protect Americans from abuse of power such as what happened in this case.
LOPEZ: The keep-faith-private posture is one we’ve been surrendering to for a while now. Has religious freedom been redefined for good?
STANLEY: We should never have to adapt to those in positions of power who tell people of faith to keep their faith to themselves. The First Amendment to the Constitution is our “first freedom” and was put in the Bill of Rights to protect the public expression of faith. This case is alarming to be sure, but that is why we fight every day at Alliance Defending Freedom to “keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel.” If people of faith simply surrender to abuse of power, then the forces bent on silencing religion have won. It only takes one to stand. Ania Joseph is a great example of what persistence and willingness to stand without compromise can accomplish.
LOPEZ: Is there a future for these IRS cases? Are people losing interest?
STANLEY: I hope people are not losing interest in this issue. It should concern every American that a powerful branch of the federal government abuses its power in this way. Thomas Jefferson said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” We must remain committed to holding all governmental officials to the Constitution. The IRS should not remain unaccountable to the American people for its unconstitutional actions.