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A certain Jewish carpenter, as the story goes, had a soft spot for tax collectors and other sinners. When confronted about his choice of associates, Jesus stood his ground: After all, it wasn't the righteous who needed his help. Now a group of sinners in St. Louis is returning the favor -- and they're managing to do it on the taxpayer's dime.
Although the St. Louis chapter of C-FIRE, or Christian Fundamentalist Internal Revenue Employees, was formed last summer, the organization has just started to attract attention -- and controversy. Until recently, few other government employees who work downtown in the Robert A. Young Federal Building even knew the group existed.
In February, Barbara Seely, an attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, caught a glimpse of a C-FIRE flier hanging on the first-floor bulletin board, near the building's elevators.
Seely's not sure what first drew her attention to the flier: the picture of a large cross, Bible and robed choir singers or the word "Christian." Up close, the poster informed federal employees and building visitors that the group would be holding two membership rallies in the federal building's auditorium, featuring a guest speaker and singing.
Seely, who works for a government agency that has a low tolerance for religious proselytizing in the workplace, wasn't happy with what she saw.
Folks at the local EEOC office take the separation of church and state seriously. Unlike the IRS, there aren't any officially sanctioned religious employee groups at the EEOC. To avoid offending non-Christians, the office won't display a Christmas tree. And the same office has taken up the fight for workers who say they have been religiously harassed on the job. For example, in 1990, the St. Louis office successfully sued a Missouri firm for religious harassment after a medical-records supervisor took her fundamentalist religious convictions to the extreme by praying over employees, "healing" them with her hands, telling a Catholic worker that "the Blessed Virgin was a whore and a slut" and advising an employee that her son had sickle-cell anemia because she was a "sinner."
Shocked to see a religious flier posted in a government building, Seely shot an e-mail to Lynn Bruner, EEOC's district director. "I find this offensive and intimidating and believe that is discriminates against me on the basis of religion," Seely wrote. "I think the posters should be removed and the rally not be permitted to be held on government property during working hours."
The proposed rally, because it involved government workers using government property, raised a red flag about a possible violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, the oft-cited separation between church and state.
Prompted by Seely's e-mail, Bruner contacted Charlie Meyer, director of property management for the General Services Administration, the federal government's landlord. Bruner asked about the GSA's official stance on the rally, whether there were any defined regulations and whether there was an issue at all.
"Oh, it will be an issue," Meyer responded in an e-mail to Bruner, "mainly because the regulations are not that well defined." GSA initially denied the C-FIRE group the right to post its notice on government bulletin boards, but Meyer said the organization "pushed back at us saying that other organizations are allowed to post for bake sales ... so they also have the right to do the same."
Meyer added, cryptically: "We also found out that C-FIRE is a very large and influential organization."
C-FIRE was founded in the mid-'90s by Lexie White, an IRS employee based in Austin, Texas. According to the group's mission statement, C-FIRE "represents Jesus Christ by providing the IRS employees spiritual help, moral support, and various worship activities."
The IRS originally refused to list it as one of its official recognized employee organizations because it was a religious group. But White argued that the agency already recognized secular employee groups, including the Association for the Improvement of Minorities and the Hispanic Internal Revenue Employees. To deny C-FIRE recognition solely because it was religious organization, she argued, violated the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom. It didn't hurt that Brian Fahling, a lawyer with the conservative American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy, was in C-FIRE's corner. The AFA center backs anti-abortion protesters, fights what it describes as "the encroaching homosexual agenda" and opposes government oppression of the "gospel message."
C-FIRE filed a lawsuit in a Texas federal court, but the government settled and C-FIRE was officially recognized in 1997.
The government's seal of approval opened up government resources to White's organization. C-FIRE was able to set up a Web page on the IRS intranet site. The page provides the organization's history and steps to setting up a chapter, as well as daily devotionals, links to other Christian sites and prayers. A few limits were placed on the group: C-FIRE can't use government copiers or stamped mail. On the other hand, group members are allowed to use government e-mail to send members messages about C-FIRE activities. The group also may run announcement in an IRS employee newsletter and is allowed to use interoffice mail and IRS conference rooms.
All of this strikes Seely, the EEOC attorney, as wrong: "They were given a green light to use taxpayer money and time to advance their religion."
Donna Harper, another EEOC attorney, is also concerned that C-FIRE membership isn't limited to just rank-and-file IRS employees.
"Managers are allowed to be part of it," Harper says, noting that White identifies herself as an insolvency manager in the intranet postings. She worries workers who report to White may feel pressure to participate in the group to advance their careers.
Not only did Seely and Harper find the flier offensive, they believe it didn't conform to the GSA's guidelines to limit the content of the notices to "the time, date and place of meetings." Nowhere did the GSA say it was acceptable to depict a Bible, cross and singing choirs.
Mary A. Mickens, an IRS employee and co-president of the St. Louis C-FIRE chapter, declined to shed much light on her organization. Asked about the February rally, she said attendance "was OK," then ended the interview, saying she'd call back. She didn't.
Ken Jones, a lawyer and editor of Missouri Lawyers Weekly, says the controversy is a good illustration of conflict of between two First Amendment clauses: the prohibition against a government-established religion and the preservation of the right to exercise religion freely. And Jones says a critical issue, whenever religion is introduced in the workplace, is: "How far can employees go in freely exercising their religion before it starts to coerce other people in the workplace?"
There may be another dilemma -- one that's less constitutional and more theological. If devout Christians are processing tax returns this year, are they more likely to show mercy to taxpayers, or will they be more diligent in making sure Caesar gets his cut?
And Seely wonders about something else: "What happens to the taxpayers who show Planned Parenthood donations on their tax returns and the person reviewing your tax return is a C-FIRE fundamentalist?"