Wednesday, May 13, 2015
The Constitution & EOs: Same-Sex Marriage, Z Street & Charitable Solicitation
Recent weeks have brought to light several pending constitutional issues of importance to tax-exempt nonprofit organizations that go beyond the issues implicated by the 501(c)(4) application mess.
The oral argument before the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (the same-sex marriage case) included the following exchange between Justice Alito and Solicitor General Verrilli (on page 38 of the transcript):
JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones [University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983)] case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or college if it opposed same-sex marriage?
GENERAL VERRILLI: 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.
The possibility that the contrary to fundamental public policy limitation found by the Court in Bob Jones to be included in Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) might prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in discrimination based on sexual orientation had been raised before this argument, including by fellow blogger Nicholas Mikay (Creighton) in a 2007 article (where he concluded a statutory amendment prohibiting discrimination would provide a stronger legal basis for such a prohibition). This exchange highlights the fact that how the Supreme Court decides the same-sex marriage case could have strong ripple effects for tax-exempt organizations, even though the IRS has for more than 30 years been reluctant to apply Bob Jones beyond the context of racial discrimination and even though any supporters of LGBT rights will have difficulty establishing their standing to force the IRS' hand in this area.
In another court in DC, the government found itself on the defensive as a three-judge panel expressed shock that the Justice Department would even assert that the IRS' treatment of applications for recognition of exemption under section 501(c)(3) during the 270 days before such applicants gained the right to go to court (assuming no substantive interaction with the IRS during that period) could somehow escape scrutiny under the Constitution. During oral argument (large MP3 file) before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in case involving the application of Z Street, judges repeatedly expressed skepticism that somehow the application process was shielded from constitutional requirements, including First Amendment concerns. Additional coverage: Wall Street Journal (opinion); see also previous blog post.
Finally, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently upheld a preliminary injunction barring the enforcement of a local ordinance that banned outdoor, unattended donation bins. The court found that plaintiff Planet Aid (a 501(c)(3) organization) had demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits of its constitutional claim under the First Amendment, finding that the ordinance was a content-based regulation of speech because it only applied to outdoor receptacles with an express message relating to charitable solicitation and giving. As such, it is subject to strict scrutiny, and the court concluded that the ordinance likely would not survive such scrutiny given the weak relationship between the ban and the city's interest in aesthetics and preventing blight and the availability of other, lesser content-neutral restrictions that could further the same interest.