(CNSNews.com) – A federal judge in Ohio ruled Friday that a lawsuit filed against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for allegedly engaging in “viewpoint discrimination” while processing applications for tax exempt status by ten conservative groups has “a likelihood of success on the merits”.
U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett also ordered the IRS to stop stalling and start processing the application submitted by the Fort Worth-based Texas Patriots Tea Party (TPTP) back in 2012 “in the ordinary course of business”.
“The evidence strongly suggests that the IRS initiated the delay because TPTP’s application was perceived at the screening state to be a Tea Party case,” the judge wrote in his 29-page ruling, which was publicly released last week.
On May 10, 2013 Lois Lerner, the former director of IRS Exempt Organizations, publicly acknowledged that the IRS had been targeting conservative groups.
On May 14, 2013, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) concluded in a report that the IRS used “inappropriate criteria” to identify and slow down the tax-exempt applications of certain organizations for further review, including those having “Tea Party”, “Patriots” of “9-12” in their titles or groups that wanted to limit government spending and were opposed to higher taxes.
An analysis by The Washington Post found that “groups with the word progressive in their names suffered no similar slowdown pattern.”
Barrett quoted a 2015 court ruling stating that “processing applications ‘pursuant to different standards and at different rates depending on the viewpoint of the applicants [is] a blatant violation of the First Amendment’…” adding that “the loss of First Amendment freedoms causes irreparable injury.”
The class action lawsuit was filed on Aug. 5, 2013 against the IRS and the Treasury Department on behalf of ten conservative groups, including TPTP, that had applied for tax-exempt status. TPTP is the last member of the class whose tax exemption is still pending.
It’s one of three outstanding lawsuits accusing the IRS of illegally targeting conservative groups. Two other cases were dismissed but later reinstated on appeal.
The IRS claimed that it could not consider TPTP’s application because of the litigation. But Barrett said the government could not “see the forest through the trees when it uses the existence of this lawsuit as grounds to continue the delay that is the subject of this lawsuit.”
“The IRS and/or its agents targeted the dissenting groups for intensive and intrusive scrutiny, probing pervasively into their members’ associations, speech, activities, and beliefs,” the lawsuit charged.
“Elements within the Executive Branch of the federal government… brought the vast powers, incomprehensible complexity, and crushing bureaucracy of the IRS to bear on groups of citizens whose only wrongdoing was their presumed dissent from the policies or ideology of the Administration. In other words, these citizens were targeted based upon their political viewpoints.”
The result was “a chilling and muzzling of free speech and association,” the lawsuit continued.
Citizens for Self-Governance president Mark Meckler told CNSNews.com that his group funded the litigation because “I saw all these organizations making money from the Tea Party targeting, but nobody was doing anything about it.”
Meckler said that besides holding up their applications for tax-exempt status, sometimes for years, the IRS also harassed the conservative groups with “a huge list of outrageous demands,” including demands for their donor lists, reading lists, and even what prayers they said at their meetings.
Small Tea Party organizations with limited staff and funds found it very difficult to comply with the tax agency’s demands, Meckler pointed out.
“A lot of groups just shut down," he said.
“Their intention was clear. The IRS intended to do everything it could to shut down the Tea Party movement before the 2012 election. And they were very successful,” he told CNSNews.
Meckler said that he is “very optimistic” that the conservative groups will win in court, but added that “I’m less optimistic that justice will be done if nobody pays the price.”
Even if the conservative groups “are vindicated and hopefully compensated” for the IRS’ actions, there’s “not much” to prevent the agency from targeting conservative groups in the future, he pointed out.
“I worry about that,” he told CNSNews. “This is a symptom of a broken government, a symptom of tyranny. And it doesn’t stand alone. It goes along with other [government] abuses.”