Fear not religion news reporters, you too can jump into one of the hottest news stories on the wires. Buried deep within an article reporting on the Internal Revenue Services' harassment of conservative advocacy groups lurks a religious liberty news story. That may not sound too exciting but you could rephrase the story pitch this way for your editor: Has the IRS created a religious test in order to define what it means to be a loyal Jew?
On Friday a second-tier IRS official told a gathering of tax lawyers the IRS had engaged in discriminatory audits against conservative groups. The initial story from the AP wire reported that the IRS admitted its mistake, but the mistake was an innocent one:
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Internal Revenue Service inappropriately flagged conservative political groups for additional reviews during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status, a top IRS official said Friday. Organizations were singled out because they included the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications for tax-exempt status, said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups. In some cases, groups were asked for their list of donors, which violates IRS policy in most cases, she said.
"That was wrong. That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate. That's not how we go about selecting cases for further review," Lerner said at a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association. "The IRS would like to apologize for that," she added. Lerner said the practice was initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati and was not motivated by political bias. After her talk, she told The AP that no high level IRS officials knew about the practice.
The story expanded exponentially over the weekend as further details emerged. By Sunday morning it had reached the level of Watergate allusions. The Daily Caller reported that on Sunday’s broadcast of ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” commentator George Will raised the specter of impeachment.
Now the question is, how stupid do they think we are? Just imagine, Donna Brazile, if the George W. Bush administration had an IRS underling, he’s out in Cincinnati, of course, saying we’re going to target groups with the word ‘progressive’ in their title. We’d have all hell breaking loose.”
Will noted that one of the items in the 1973 impeachment articles of then-President Richard Nixon, which ultimately led to his resignation, described the Nixon administration’s use of the power of income tax audits in a “discriminatory matter.”
“This is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate summer here in Washington,” Will said. “’He has, through his subordinated and agents, endeavored…to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigation to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner,’ — Section 1, Article 2, the impeachment articles of Richard Nixon.
Other outlets developed collateral stories on the IRS enemies list. The Jewish Press reported that along with the tea party pro-Israel lobbying groups had been subjected to enhanced IRS scrutiny.
... There is evidence the IRS also targeted pro-Israel groups whose positions were potentially inconsistent with the administration’s. For example, in 2010, the passionately pro-Israel organization Z STREET filed a lawsuit against the IRS, claiming it had been told by an IRS agent that because the organization was “connected to Israel,” its application for tax-exempt status would receive additional scrutiny. ...
Breitbart developed this story, adding historical context and suggesting there was a "common thread: opposition to Obama, and instigation or support of these IRS inquiries by left-wing groups and mainstream media institutions devoted to defending the administration."
What has not been developed yet is this paragraph in The Jewish Press story:
And at least one purely religious Jewish organization, one not focused on Israel, was the recipient of bizarre and highly inappropriate questions about Israel. Those questions also came from the same non-profit division of the IRS at issue for inappropriately targeting politically conservative groups. The IRS required that Jewish organization to state “whether [it] supports the existence of the land of Israel,” and also demanded the organization “[d]escribe [its] religious belief system toward the land of Israel.”
The implications of this paragraph are profound. Is the state seeking to control religious doctrine for political ends through the coercive power of its tax authority? There are some red flags in The Jewish Press story. Though it is characterized as a news story, the article is a one-sided advocacy piece written by an individual closely associated with one of the organizations under IRS scrutiny. No names, dates or details are given though a powerful quote is supplied. Absent a name, it is difficult to judge its veracity.
Yes, there is a journalism angle in all of this, especially for religion-beat veterans.
Here is an opportunity for religion reporters to add their expertise to the IRS audit scandal. Let it not be said that religion reporting is a cul-de-sac -- the hints in The Jewish Press story open the door for an energetic reporter to explore allegations of political malfeasance and corruption, separation of church and state issues, foreign policy, and perhaps a dose of good old-fashioned anti-Semitism. This is going to be fun.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.