Journalism, the IRS and Religious Liberty: Dangerous Precedents

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Thursday, May 23, 2013

Journalism, the IRS and Religious Liberty: Dangerous Precedents

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank usually seems little more than a cheerleader for the Obama administration, but his recent op-ed, "Criminalizing Journalism," was brilliant. Oh, he got in the requisite cheap shot at George Bush and even threw one at Richard Nixon, but the column came down hard on President Obama for spying on journalists and criminalizing good reporting.

At issue is the case against Fox News reporter James Rosen, who has been called a “co-conspirator and/or aider and abettor” in an espionage case against one of his sources. Milbank is not pleased.

“Liberals may not be particularly bothered,” he writes, “because the targeted journalist works for Fox News. Conservatives may not be concerned because of their antipathy toward the news media generally. And the general public certainly doesn’t have much patience for journalists’ whining.”

But, he goes on, everyone should care. “To treat a reporter as a criminal for doing his job — seeking out information the government doesn’t want made public — deprives Americans of the First Amendment freedom on which all other constitutional rights are based. Guns? Privacy? Due process? Equal protection? If you can’t speak out, you can’t defend those rights, either.” Amen.

There’s something similar going in the IRS’s singling out groups with conservative or “Tea Party” sounding names. Asking a pro-life group for the content of their prayers as a prerequisite to receiving nonprofit status is a huge abridgement of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Even worse, a year ago someone at the IRS leaked the confidential return filed by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to the Human Rights Campaign and the Huffington Post who posted the names of NOM donors on their websites.

All nonprofits file tax returns (990s) that include donor names, but those names are confidential, for the IRS’s internal use. When the 990s are made public, the names are left out.

Leaking a return with donor names is a felony. Publishing those names is a felony. Yet neither the IRS, the media, the White House, the Department of Justice, nor the majority of nonprofits are demanding action. I assume the attitude is that since NOM is against redefining marriage to include same-sex couples they’re getting what they deserve.

Yet Milbank’s point applies here as well. Every nonprofit in the country should be outraged regardless of what they think of NOM. If IRS employees can with impunity leak confidential tax returns to activists and media outlets who can with impunity post donor lists online, every group in America is at risk. Today it’s liberals leaking tax returns from a conservative group. Next time, the wind may be blowing the other direction. If this is swept under the rug, no one is safe.

Finally Milbank’s point applies to religious liberty. As I said several months ago, if you think religious liberty is a Catholic issue, I don’t blame you. The media has incessantly called the HHS health insurance mandate the “contraception mandate” ignoring the fact that the mandate demands that contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs be available in all health insurance for free with a very narrow religious exception.

The Catholic bishops courageously defended this infringement of religious liberty. Evangelical activists here in Washington have also acted with courage and resolve, but Evangelical leaders beyond Washington have, for the most part, been asleep at the wheel. And lay people, both Evangelical and Catholic, have responded with a collective yawn. Theologically liberal Christians and secularists, needless to say, could not possibly care less.

Some Christians have gone so far as to argue that there are religious people — Muslims in particular — to whom we do not want to extend too much religious liberty. But how handing theological and moral authority to the federal government addresses questions surrounding Islam is not at all clear. And history clearly shows that granting religious freedom to favored groups while withholding it from less favored groups is fuels extremism and even violence.

All our freedoms rest on the foundation of religious liberty. What, after all, is the use of freedom of speech or freedom of the press if you’re not permitted to say what you believe? If religious liberty can be taken from some groups today, it can be taken from others tomorrow. But because religious freedom comes from God, it precedes the state and Christians should fight for everyone’s religious liberty.

Milbank wrote his final paragraph about journalists, but it applies equally to the IRS’s bullying and to religious freedom. He writes (ironically, it seems to me): “If Obama really is ‘a fierce defender of the First Amendment,’ as his spokesman would have it, he will move quickly to fix this. Otherwise, Obama is establishing an ominous precedent for future leaders whose fondness for the First Amendment may not be so fierce.” Exactly.