IRS Will Not Target Tax-Exempt Colleges Over Gay Marriage

Internal Revenue Service commissioner John Koskinen has informed the Senate Judiciary Oversight Subcommittee that his agency will not revoke the tax-exempt status of colleges and universities that oppose gay marriage on religious grounds, the Washington Post reports.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling legalizing same-sex marriage earlier this summer, religious leaders expressed fears that religious universities, charities, and other institutions could lose their tax-exempt status if they opposed the legality of gay marriage. During a hearing last week, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) asked Koskinen whether he would commit to "not tak[ing] any action to remove the tax exempt status from religious colleges or universities based on their belief that...marriage is between a man and a woman."

"I can make that commitment," said Koskinen, who added that the agency sees "no basis for changing our examination criteria as a result of this Supreme Court case." Moreover, Koskinen said, if the agency were to reconsider the tax-exempt status of religious institutions, "we would issue it for public comment. There would be no surprises....The public would have plenty of notice and plenty of opportunity to comment, and that's not going to happen in the next two and a half years."

Lee, however, pointed to the court's oral arguments in March, during which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. referred to a 1983 decision in which the court ruled that Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian college in South Carolina, was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it barred interracial marriages on campus. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., arguing for same-sex couples, agreed that the tax status of institutions that barred same-sex marriage is "certainly going to be an issue," while Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. seemed to concur, writing in his minority opinion that the issue eventually would come before the court.

"At this time there is no basis for us to revisit tax-exempt status on that grounds," said Koskinen, while seeming to leave open the possibility that the issue could be revisited in the future.

For his part, Lee, who has introduced legislation to protect the tax exemption  of religious institutions, remained skeptical. "While I greatly appreciate Commissioner Koskinen's word that he will not target religious institutions for their religious beliefs," he said in a statement after the hearing, "it worries me, and it should worry every American, that the IRS does not absolutely disavow the power to target religious institutions based on their religious beliefs, even if the current IRS commissioner has committed not to use that power for the time being."