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.
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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, charitable, religious or other 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."