Tax-Exempt Hatred

The IRS needs to do a better job policing tax-exempt status.

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The exterior of the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, Friday, March 22, 2013.

A few weeks ago, Forbes magazine published an intriguing column by Peter J. Reilly that asked an important question: If the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the Family Research Council a hate group, should the IRS take action?

In the column, Reilly criticizes a paper by University of Georgia Professor Alex Reed. Reed argues that the IRS must do a better job enforcing its procedure 86-43, which is the standard it uses to determine if a tax exempt organization is advocating an educational point of view or one that produces materials that are factually unsupported, distorted or make substantial use of inflammatory and denigrating language. If it organization does the latter, the procedure indicates that it does not qualify for tax-exempt status.

Reed writes that the IRS' poor oversight of 86-43 has allowed many out-of-compliance organizations to keep their preferential tax benefits, particularly hate groups. Hate groups advocate hostility toward certain groups of people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. He references The Family Research Council, which has a long history of publishing offensive propaganda about the LGBT community.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the IRS Scandal.]

Other tax-exempt organizations not mentioned by Reed, but with similar reputations include: the anti-LGBT Family Watch International,  whose research archive contains numerous offensive, junk science studies on gays and lesbians, and the xenophobic Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has volumes of distortions broadly denigrating immigrants.

Reilly argues that strict enforcement of 86-43 wouldn't work because “if somebody expresses a view that you find threatening to your world view, you are likely to conclude that they hate you.” In other words, it would be impossible for any IRS employees to enforce 86-43, because any threat to their beliefs would trump their professional obligations. He ignores the possibility that the IRS could punish employees for targeting organizations based on their personal or political beliefs, an obvious, much needed reform given the IRS's political targeting of tea party organizations earlier this year.

Both Reilly and Reed would do better not framing their arguments around what organizations the Southern Poverty Law Center deems hate groups. In fact, the hate group term doesn't even need to be involved. Any organization whose educational materials don't conform to the procedure should be scrutinized. The IRS must ground its enforcement on its rules, not the Southern Poverty Law Center's position.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Enforcement has nothing to do with limiting an organization's free speech. The Family Research Council, Family Watch International, Federation for Immigration Reform or any other group masquerading as educational institutions don't need tax-exempt status to exercise their civil liberties. One is not necessary to the other.

Enforcement has to do with the fair application of rules designed to maintain the integrity of the tax-exempt system. Preferential tax treatment is, for all intents and purposes, a government subsidy administered through the tax system. If a tax-exempt organization is flouting the standards by which its status is awarded, it shouldn't expect the government to continue to assist it in the coordination of its financial activities. The government is not obligated to make it easier for these organizations to threaten people's basic rights and freedoms. In fact, the government has a moral, legal and ethical obligation to do the opposite.

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