Fights among Catholics, with the IRS picking a side

There is nothing particularly unusual about conservative Catholics arguing with liberal Catholics, especially when it comes to hot-button issues such as abortion. It is unusual, however, for the IRS to jump into these pew wars.

Catholic sociologist Anne Hendershott is convinced that's what happened to her in 2010. This was during the time when IRS leaders, according to their own testimony, were inappropriately targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny, especially those with "patriot" or "tea party" in their names. Also, some religious groups -- the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, for example -- drew challenges after making public efforts to defend their beliefs on issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

"I don't think the IRS cares about the Catholic Church's position on life," said Hendershott, who teaches at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Instead, the agency's leaders "care about passing Obamacare, because the health-care program gives the IRS tremendous power. ...

"Anyone who threatens that growth is an enemy to them. Anyone who tries to point out that Obamacare provisions for funding abortion are counter to Catholic teachings is a threat."

Hendershott has engaged in her share of debates about Catholic doctrine and public policy, primarily in the pages -- analog or digital -- of conservative publications such as Catholic World Report, and Catholic Advocate. Then, in the fall of 2009, she wrote a Wall Street Journal piece critical of Catholic groups -- both official and unofficial -- that she believed were serving as "faithful helpers" for President Barack Obama's health-care plan.

"Drawing upon support within Catholic community agencies is a strategy that worked well for Mr. Obama when he was running for president," she wrote. "Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United tried to neutralize the abortion issue during the campaign by suggesting that Mr. Obama's proposals on 'social justice' issues like poverty were the way to reduce abortion rates without restricting abortion rights.

"Now personnel from these organizations are playing a role in enlisting Catholic support for health-care reform."

The following spring, an IRS agent called to say she would be audited. This didn't surprise Hendershott very much, until she heard that the government was especially interested in whatever income she had earned from non-academic work. When the requests for documentation arrived, almost all of them focused on deposits linked to her freelance articles and speaking engagements.

Hendershott immediately thought about the Wall Street Journal piece, especially since it reached a much larger audience than her many articles written for small publications targeting Catholics. The "faithful helpers" piece also linked some liberal Catholic activism to groups funded by billionaire George Soros, an atheist known for his opposition to official Catholic beliefs and causes.

During their face-to-face meeting in New Haven, Conn., the agent never asked questions about the "politics" of anyone who funded her writings, stressed Hendershott. Instead, she was repeatedly asked to name the groups or individuals who provided any stipends that had been deposited into the family's bank account.

In one twist, the agent was especially interested in knowing the source of one large deposit -- for $12,000 -- during the period of time being investigated. This was rather ironic, said Hendershott, since that was a refund check from the IRS itself.

The bottom line, she said, is that writers don't make much money when they are writing for small Catholic publications. Most of the documents she was ordered to provide indicated that she received no payments at all.

On one level, these kinds of disputes usually pivot on points of doctrine, with Catholic organizations -- including giants such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Catholic Health Association -- arguing about how best to apply Catholic social teachings in the muddy realities of public life.

Seen from the government's point of view, said Hendershott, the key is that some Catholics back the goals of the administration that is in power, while others do not. For the IRS, doctrine is secondary.

"I believe that is why I became the enemy" in this case, she said. "I cannot think of another reason that I would have been audited. So, I do believe the IRS is protecting itself by picking sides. ...

"Businesses try to get rid of the competition. The IRS just tried to silence the opposition -- or the competition to their growth model."

Into the depths of USA's church-state Inferno

IRS Commissioner Steven Miller was already having a rough day at the House Ways and Means Committee when one particularly hot question shoved him into the lower depths of a church-state Inferno. The question concerned a letter sent by IRS officials in Cincinnati to the Coalition for Life of Iowa, linked to its application for tax-exempt status.

"Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational," said the letter, which was released by the Thomas More Society, which often defends traditional religious groups.

"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."

Welcome back to the religious liberty wars of 2013, in a scene captured by the omnipresent eye of C-SPAN.

Questioning this government entanglement in issues of doctrine and even worship, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) asked: "Would that be an inappropriate question to a 501(c)3 applicant? The content of one's prayers?"

Miller, already on his way out as IRS leader, had stressed he would not address individual cases. Thus, he replied: "It pains me to say I can't speak to that one either. ... Speaking outside of this case, which I don't know anything about, it would surprise me that that question was asked."

IRS officials have, of course, confessed that they inappropriately targeted conservative groups -- especially those with "tea party" or "patriot" in their names -- for extra scrutiny when they sought non-profit status. Allegations of abuse or harassment have since broadened to include groups conducting grassroots projects to "make America a better place to live," to promote classes about the U.S. Constitution or to raise support for Israel.

However, it now appears the IRS also challenged some individuals and religious groups that, while defending key elements of their faith traditions, have criticized projects dear to the current White House, such as health-care reform, abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

At the heart of these fights are questions often raised about a variety of groups on the left and the right. Was it partisan politics when African-American churches worked to promote economic justice, during campaigns when those efforts helped President Barack Obama? What about liberal religious groups that stressed voting green on environmental issues, during campaigns when those efforts often led to support for Democrats?

In recent years, religious conservatives have been accused of turning projects linked to their teachings on abortion and marriage into vaguely partisan efforts to oppose Obama, while indirectly supporting his opponents.

Thus, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the global Samaritan's Purse humanitarian project faced IRS review -- for the first time ever. During the most recent White House campaign, the Graham organization ran adds against gay marriage in North Carolina. In one, the elder Graham was quoted saying: "I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”

In a letter to Obama, the Rev. Franklin Graham claimed: "I believe that someone in the administration was targeting and attempting to intimidate us. This is morally wrong and unethical -- indeed some would call it 'un-American.' ... I do not believe that the IRS audit of our two organizations last year is a coincidence -- or justifiable."

Meanwhile, on the religious left, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is convinced that the younger Franklin is -- no coincidence at all -- drawing justifiable scrutiny because of "his disgust with President Obama."

While the Graham ads didn't mention politicians by name, this was "clearly an effort by one of the Graham families' tax-exempt groups to directly affect the outcome of the election, he argued, in the "On Faith" forum at The Washington Post website. "If this brazen action led to IRS scrutiny, I'm fine with that. My only regret is that the agency didn't yank the BGEA's tax-exempt status for doing so.

"The problem isn't that the IRS is being too aggressive in this area. It's that its enforcement efforts have been sporadic, unfocused and tepid."

Call it church-state espionage

Call it church-state espionage.

Unitarians and other activists on the religious left have been slipping into evangelical pews to endure altar calls, praise songs and sermons against gay marriage. The Kansas-based Mainstream Coalition has a simple reason for doing this. If preachers openly endorse President Bush, its agents can report these crimes to the IRS.

Reacting to these watchdogs on the left, the Religious Freedom Action Coalition promptly launched Big Brother Church Watch -- -- to infiltrate churches that might back Sen. John Kerry. Big Brother agents will, for starters, target Unitarian Universalists, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church.

The good news is that this strategy may increase church attendance, quipped the Rev. James L. Evans of the First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

"Reports from both groups seem to indicate that the monitors will be going out two by two," said Evans, in a satirical essay for the University of Chicago's Martin Marty Center. "Monitoring pairs could easily become monitoring teams. We could witness the rise of monitoring communities.