IRS stonewalling puts audit shoe on other foot
If the Internal Revenue Service was auditing you, and you whined that getting all the documentation agents wanted was too hard and would take you years, what do you think the response would be?
Yet that's the game IRS chief John Koskinen is playing with the U.S. House Government Oversight and Reform Committee. Apparently, turnabout is not fair play in IRS Land.
At issue is how the IRS handled applications for tax-exempt status by tea party and other conservative groups, and what Koskinen says will be millions of communications involving his agency, White House officials and others.
A leading member of the committee, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told Koskinen, "we don't want the excuses anymore. Prioritize it. Put more lawyers on the job. All means all."
Under this flurry of paper is the fact that the IRS has already disclosed that agency employees flagged groups that mentioned "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications for nonprofit status or were involved in "limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform/movement."
Add to that the fact Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the controversy, has twice refused to answer Oversight committee questions, and may be held in contempt of Congress and turned over to federal prosecutors.
According to IRS.gov, the agency's mission is to "provide America's taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and enforce the law with integrity and fairness to all." That mission statement makes this stonewalling all the more unacceptable - and just as offensive as if a different party was in the White House and a different party was asking the questions.
Religious freedom is a personal freedom, not an employer choice
It is hard to imagine anyone, from conservative to liberal, who would want their employer's religious beliefs imposed on their workforce or insurance coverage. Religious freedom is a personal freedom, not an employer choice.
For that reason, the U.S. Supreme Court should reject Hobby Lobby's claim that providing employees with certain contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act violates the company's religious liberty. It doesn't. A firm run by executives with deep religious convictions is not the same as a church or religious nonprofit organization.
The owners of Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby and Pennsylvania-based Conestoga Wood Specialties are challenging the health care act's requirement that their firms offer insurance covering drugs and devices that they contend end human life after conception. While the firms' owners don't oppose all contraceptives, they say covering such drugs and devices forces them to violate their religious beliefs against taking a human life.
The deep-seated personal convictions of Hobby Lobby's executives and Conestoga's Mennonite owners are not in question. What is at issue is whether a private, profit-making business can dictate religious beliefs on employees, a point Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg zeroed in on during oral arguments in the case last month. Sotomayor bluntly asked, "How does a corporation exercise religion?" Kagan then said corporations might claim religious objections to laws banning sexual discrimination, child labor, minimum wage and family leave.
They're right. Extending the religious rights of individuals to corporations that don't have an explicit religious mission would have unintended, far-reaching consequences on both secular and religious freedoms. For example, what makes a craft chain like Hobby Lobby different from a tech company or a bank, whose bosses have deep religious convictions but otherwise operate as a secular firm? Based on an owner's leanings, some companies might deny coverage for vaccinations and blood transfusions on religious grounds, holding employees hostage to management's personal beliefs and depriving employees of choice. With all due respect, these decisions are best left up to each employee and their own conscience.
Two years ago, another dispute arose over Affordable Care Act mandates requiring the Catholic Church and other religious institutions to include birth control in health coverage plans. This newspaper urged the federal government to find a way to acknowledge the unique religious missions of those institutions while making sure their employees have access to insurance coverage, even if by a third party. Our guiding principle was fairness and balance, the same principle we think the court should apply in the Hobby Lobby case.
Individuals have long cited religious reasons for opposing all sorts of laws, and the courts have worked through cases very carefully to preserve balance. Extending conscientious objector status to secular corporations would be a mistake. Religious freedom is an individual right, and the justices should affirm this principle.