Judge tells IRS to respond to employees’ religious discrimination claims

Thursday, March 5, 1998

AUSTIN (AP) – A federal judge warned the Internal Revenue Service that it must do a better job of responding to discrimination complaints by a group of Christian fundamentalist employees, but he declined to issue an injunction to protect the employees’ rights.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks said he wouldn’t issue a permanent court injunction because he found no intentional discrimination against the Christian Fundamentalist Internal Revenue Employees, or CFIRE.

At most, Sparks wrote in an order released Wednesday, testimony by two IRS officials and an employee “revealed persistent bureaucratic bungling and miscommunications, not a systematic policy of viewpoint discrimination by top levels of IRS management.”

Sparks said “both sides are at fault for failing to resolve the conflicts, both petty and large, among themselves.”

CFIRE and its founder, Lexie White of Austin, have twice sued saying their First Amendment rights were violated by the IRS.

Sparks noted that an IRS official’s memorandum issued in November to office heads said CFIRE should receive the same recognition afforded similar groups. The agency said it intends to issue a written policy on employee groups and meanwhile has proposed an expedited procedure to respond to CFIRE complaints.

“The court sincerely hopes the IRS voluntarily undertakes these measures and that both sides open the doors of communication in a concerted, good faith effort to end the acrimonious and adversarial relationship that has developed between them,” Sparks wrote.

“Moreover, the court warns the IRS that the excuse of bureaucratic bungling can only go so far. In the future, a consistent failure to take timely, corrective action in response to CFIRE’s reasonable complaints of discrimination may be evidence of discriminatory intent,” he wrote.

“This lawsuit has been in this court twice before. Three strikes, and somebody’s going to be out—for good.”

Sparks ordered the IRS and the Christian group to file a pleading by March 13 saying whether the case should remain before him. An IRS lawyer didn’t have a comment. A lawyer representing CFIRE didn’t immediately return a telephone call from The Associated Press.

The case stemmed from CFIRE’s efforts, beginning last May, to place an article in IRS employee newsletters in Washington and North Texas.

The Washington newsletter finally published the article in September, after CFIRE’s second lawsuit. A North Texas IRS official testified in November he was unsure whether that newsletter had yet published it.

The publication delays came after Sparks didn’t issue an injunction in a 1996 CFIRE lawsuit. He then cited a January IRS memorandum saying the group was to be recognized like any other.

CFIRE, represented by a lawyer from the American Family Law Association law center, had asked for a declaration that the group’s First Amendment rights were violated. It also requested an injunction preventing the IRS from imposing any duties on the group not required of other associations.

Other IRS employee groups represent gays, lesbians and bisexuals, ethnic minorities and women.

President Clinton in August issued guidelines saying federal employees are free to express their faith at work in various ways, including discussing their beliefs.