LA gay centre sues IRS for past discrimination

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The LA Gay Lesbian Centre sued the Internal Revenue Service in US District Court this week to force the IRS to obey the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by releasing documents related to its discriminatory rejection of the centre’s application for non-profit status in the early 1970s.

More than a year after filing for federal 501(c)(3) non-profit status in 1971, the IRS denied the application from the “Gay Community Services Centre” (as it was known then) on the unsubstantiated grounds that it was not “organised and operated exclusively for charitable and educational purposes.”

The centre was the first organisation with the word “gay” in its name to apply for non-profit status. It wasn’t until August 1974, after many appeals, that the federal agency reversed course and awarded the centre non-profit status.

Even then, the IRS granted the status only upon several conditions, including that the centre would not “contend that homosexuality is normal” and that the centre’s “officers and directors are not avowed homosexuals.”

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the IRS in violation of FOIA, and to order the agency to immediately produce the requested records, to provide a detailed explanation for withholding the requested documents and to pay the centre’s attorney’s fees and other court-related costs. In its complaint against the IRS, the centre charges the agency with “trying to cover up its misconduct by refusing to turn over the background documents” regarding its initial denial of the center’s non-profit status.

A request for the documents was first filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) more than one and one half years ago by centre board member and attorney Dean Hansell, managing partner of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene McRae, pro bono legal counsel for the centre in its lawsuit.

The FOIA requires the IRS to respond within 20 days.

In an October 2005 written response to Hansell, IRS FOIA officer Symeria Rascoe acknowledged that the requested documents had been located, but were being reviewed by the IRS Office of Collection Policy.

To date, the centre says that the IRS has failed to produce a single document in response to the March 2005 request and Rascoe has not responded to a subsequent letter from Hansell, and multiple phone calls, seeking their release.

“As the centre celebrates its 35th anniversary, we’re especially interested in learning more about our history, including the Federal government’s blatant discrimination against the first openly gay organisation to seek non-profit status,” said Chief Executive Officer Lorri Jean.

“It is clear that the IRS is reluctant to release these documents because it does not want this shameful and discriminatory chapter in its history to be made public.”

Among the documents requested are all records analysing, discussing or considering its original 501(c)(3) application; a copy of the original IRS denial letter; all records in conjunction with the original denial letter; and all records in conjunction with the later IRS approval letter.

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