After nearly four years of litigation, a U.S. federal district court judge instructed the Internal Revenue Service to cease “struggl[ing mightly]” to thwart a lawsuit filed by the pro-Israel organization Z STREET. That lawsuit alleges the IRS violated Z STREET’s First Amendment Constitutional rights. The judge ordered the IRS to file a substantive answer to Z STREET’s Complaint within 30 days.
Z STREET* sought tax-exempt status as a non-profit organization engaged in educating the public about Israel and the Middle East conflict. The organization filed its application in December of 2009.
On July 19, 2010, when counsel for Z STREET spoke with the IRS agent to whom the organization’s application had been assigned, that agent said that a determination on Z STREET’s application may be further delayed because the IRS gave “special scrutiny” to organizations connected to Israel and especially to those whose views “contradict those of the administration’s.”
That statement by the IRS agent, according to the Z STREET board, constituted a clear violation of the Constitution. The government may not treat an organization or person differently because of that person or organization’s political viewpoint. Such action by a government entity constitutes what is known as “viewpoint discrimination.”
Z STREET filed a lawsuit against the IRS alleging that its Constitutional rights had been violated. That lawsuit, Z STREET v. Schulman, IRS Commissioner (now Koskinen) has finally obtained its first substantive ruling.
Several years after Z STREET challenged the IRS in court, several tea party and other conservative groups also claimed the IRS had discriminated against them on the basis of their political viewpoint. On May 10 of last year, the floodgates of criticism burst open when then Director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division Lois Lerner admitted that the IRS had engaged in certain activity that disadvantaged conservative groups. Lerner referred to that activity at the time as “absolutely inappropriate.”
The ruling in the Z STREET case by Judge Ketanje Brown Jackson on Tuesday, May 27, is the first substantive ruling by a judge in any action brought challenging the political impartiality of the IRS under the current administration.
Judge Jackson summarily rejected the three grounds raised by the government in its effort to thwart Z STREET’s day in court. The first two she rejected because she refused to accept the IRS position that Z STREET was simply complaining about the fact that its application had not been granted.
Defendant struggles mightily to transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process that the IRS allegedly employs when it determines the tax exempt status of certain organizations into a dispute over tax liability as a means of attempting to thwart this action’s advancement.
The judge rejected the third defense – one of sovereign immunity – raised by the IRS by pointing out that the government may not claim it is immune from claims that it is acting unconstitutionally. Indeed, that is the basis for the Bill of Rights.
The IRS must file a substantive response to Z STREET’s Complaint by June 26, 2014.
Since the time the lawsuit was filed, IRS documents were released by a U.S. congressman which essentially confirm Z STREET’s claims and suggest that the IRS agents filed documents with the court that were not truthful.
*The author of this article is the president of Z STREET.Lori Lowenthal Marcus