WASHINGTON — A brief exchange during Supreme Court arguments in the same-sex marriage case has exploded into a full-blown crisis for some conservatives who warn that the IRS could start revoking the tax-exempt status of religious groups that oppose gay marriage.
The attorneys general of 15 states have written Congress asking for legislation to protect religious schools and other groups. Bills in the House and Senate are gaining support.
Officials are responding to the Supreme Court ruling in June that required every state to recognize same-sex marriages.
In a brief statement, the IRS said Thursday the ruling will not affect the standards agents use to evaluate tax-exempt organizations. Democrats, meanwhile, say Republicans are creating a straw man to fire up the GOP base as they try to resist America's changing social mores.
"This is more than a hypothetical, this is well beyond firing up the base," said Rep. Bill Flores of Texas, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members.
"This is based on the next round of attacks that have already been queued up," Flores said Thursday. "This is simple... we're protecting organizations based on their sincerely held religious beliefs."
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said of the conservatives: "I think they're looking for a wedge issue in the upcoming campaign, but I think they're on the wrong side of history and I think the American people quite frankly aren't interested in their culture wars."
The kerfuffle started with a brief exchange back in April, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the same-sex marriage case.
Justice Samuel Alito asked the government's lawyer about a 1983 court case that allowed the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, a Christian school in South Carolina. The school forbade students from dating or marrying students from another race. The school's policy said students could be expelled for advocating interracial marriage or dating.
"So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?" Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.
Verilli: "You know I, I don't think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it's certainly going to be an issue. I, I don't deny that. I don't deny that, Justice Alito. It is ... it is going to be an issue.
Conservatives have seized on the exchange as proof of the government's intentions.
"The government's own attorney, Solicitor General Verrilli, essentially admitted that there would be no protection for religious organizations in wake of the court's ruling," Flores said.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., said: "It's no longer hyperbole or exaggeration to think that they may be a target."
The 15 attorneys general, led by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, cited Verrilli's comments in a letter to congressional leaders.
"As chief legal officers of our states, we are concerned that the Internal Revenue Service may deny tax-exempt status to religious organizations following the decision of the Supreme Court," the AGs wrote. "We urge Congress to take steps to prevent the IRS from choosing this course."
In the House, lawmakers have obliged with a bill that has 124 co-sponsors. A Senate bill has 34 co-sponsors.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined the fray Thursday, writing a letter to the IRS commissioner seeking assurances that the tax agency won't go after tax-exempt groups that oppose same-sex marriage. Cruz is running for the Republican nomination for president.
Legal experts said churches and other religious groups have no reason to fear that the IRS is going to take away their tax-exempt status because of their views in same-sex marriage.
"The argument here would have to be that you have a right to have your marriage blessed by a church," said Suzanne Ross McDowell, a partner at the law firm of Steptoe and Johnson in Washington. "It's inconceivable to me that the Supreme Court is going to tell churches how to administer their sacraments."
McDowell also said religious schools are free to teach their views on same-sex marriage, without worrying about the IRS.
"You would never get into trouble for teaching. That's protected speech," McDowell said.
Marcus Owens, a former head of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, was more blunt.
"If one looks to legal history, the attorney generals' views are hyperbolic and overblown, frankly," said Owens, now a partner at the law firm of Loeb & Loeb. "They don't reflect good legal analysis."
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