National Catholic Register: Church muzzled by IRS on issues? No, church organizations say
WASHINGTON (National Catholic Register) – In June, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service put churches on notice for the 2006 campaign season. It said it would step up enforcement of its rules governing political participation by churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations.
So does this mean that bishops, priests and other Catholic leaders are in jeopardy of being muzzled in key political debates?
No, according to Tom Nash, director of special projects for Steubenville, Ohio-based Catholics United for the Faith. He said that Catholic organizations can speak out freely on political issues without fear of losing their tax-exempt status.
“The existing law allows church entities to still preach the gospel – to speak out on issues – without having to violate the law,” Nash said. “What is prohibited by the IRS is speaking out on a particular candidate, saying vote for this one or don’t vote for this one – naming names or explicitly taking sides.”
Concerns about a possible IRS “crackdown” against religious groups arose after the IRS announced its plan to ramp up enforcement of its Political Activity Compliance Initiative.
“While the vast majority of charities and churches do not engage in politicking, an increasing number did take part in prohibited activities in the 2004 election cycle,” IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said in a June 1 press statement. “The rule against political campaign intervention by charities and churches is long established. We are stepping up our efforts to enforce it.”
Churches and other nonprofit religious organizations qualify for tax-free status under the provisions of Sec. 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Under the IRS’ interpretation of Sec. 501(c)(3), as set forth in IRS Publication 1828, religious organizations are allowed to take public positions on issues of concern but may not provide direct support to individual candidates or indicate that voters should vote for or against specific candidates.
The IRS does not ban religious leaders from endorsing candidates, but they must do so as individuals rather than as official representatives of their church or religious organization.
Churches may invite individual candidates to speak on church property and also may host candidate forums. But in both cases, a church must not appear to favor an individual candidate.
A range of penalties can be imposed for violations of the IRS rules. The most significant is the loss of tax-exempt status.
The IRS has not modified these rules for the current election cycle. But it has increased enforcement through the Political Activity Compliance Initiative by launching investigations of alleged violations earlier in the election year and by increasing the number of investigators.
In 2004, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called for an IRS investigation of Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., after Bishop Sheridan published a pastoral letter saying that Catholics should vote against candidates who support abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research.
Barry Lynn, the organization’s executive director, said in a May 2004 press release that Bishop Sheridan was “using a form of religious blackmail to steer votes toward the GOP.”
In an interview this month with the National Catholic Register, Lynn said he was pleased that the IRS was stepping up enforcement of its rules on political activity by churches and religious organizations.
“I think that disposing of these complaints and taking them seriously is a very important step,” said Lynn.
The pro-abortion lobby group Catholics for a Free Choice, which has been denounced by the U.S. bishops’ conference for falsely claiming to be an authentically Catholic organization, filed complaints with the IRS in 2004 against Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.
Neither Archbishop Chaput nor Archbishop Burke named specific candidates in the 2004 elections that Catholics should vote for or against. But the pro-abortion activists claimed the archbishops had violated IRS rules by their forceful assertions that Catholic voters should vote for pro-life candidates and against candidates who support abortion and other anti-life positions.
Asked by the National Catholic Register about the outcome of complaints filed in 2004 against Catholic organizations, IRS spokesman Bruce Friedland said via e-mail that Sec. 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code prohibits disclosure of such information.
But it appears the IRS concluded that the 2004 complaints against the three Catholic bishops had little merit. St. Louis archdiocesan spokesman Tony Huenneke said the archdiocese had not been contacted about the issue, and Bishop Sheridan told the National Catholic Register Aug. 11, “We never heard from the IRS.”
Jeanette De Melo, director of communications for the archdiocese of Denver, said that the archdiocese has a policy of not commenting on whether the IRS has contacted the archdiocese about such complaints. In any case, De Melo said, “We’re still ...
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