National Catholic Register


Catholics Free to Speak Out on Issues


Contributing Editor

August 20-26, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/21/06 at 10:00 AM


WASHINGTON — 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.

Bishops Targeted

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 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 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 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 going to preach the Gospel and the teachings of the Church, and we’re going to do that in every way that we possibly can.”

Catholic Answers

California-based Catholic Answers, which distributed 10 million copies of its Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics in 2004, was also targeted by an IRS complaint from Catholics for a Free Choice.

The Voter’s Guide identifies five issues as “non-negotiable” issues that must always be opposed: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning and homosexual “marriage” (see sidebar).

Jimmy Akin, director of communications for Catholic Answers Action, said that while some modifications have been made in 2006 to the Voter’s Guide none resulted from the IRS complaint, which he described as an attempt to “intimidate” Catholic Answers.

But the guide is being published this year by Catholic Answers Action, rather than Catholic Answers, “in order to prevent frivolous complaints,” Akin said.

Catholic Answers Action is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization. Such groups are designated by the IRS as tax-exempt social welfare organizations and operate under different regulations than religious 501(c)(3) groups.

Catholic Answers Action has posted an independent legal opinion on its website, The opinion, by the Indiana-based law firm of Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom, states that because the Voter’s Guide “is issue advocacy and not political intervention pursuant to the Internal Revenue Code,” it may be distributed by Church groups without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

Potential Problem?

OMB Watch, a non-profit federal watchdog group that primarily monitors fiscal and budgetary issues, has warned that the IRS’ stepped-up enforcement could pose a threat to legitimate political activities undertaken by tax-exempt religious organizations.

“The IRS’ new approach to enforcement could hamper nonpartisan issue advocacy and voter education and mobilization efforts,” OMB Watch said in a May 2006 report. “Our concerns derive mainly from the lack of a bright line rule defining what is partisan and what is not, coupled with ‘fast-track’ procedures.”

OMB Watch said that its review of the IRS’s Political Activity Compliance Initiative had found that there “is not widespread violation of the ban on intervention in elections.” And, the watchdog group said, the IRS “should make clear that a charity’s right to criticize elected officials is not suspended because an election is taking place.”

But Catholics United for the Faith’s Tom Nash says that the federal tax code still affords Catholics plenty of latitude to uphold their faith through the democratic process, in a way that transcends political partisanship.

“One can still be ‘wise as serpents’ and yet ‘innocent as doves,’” Nash said, citing the example given in the 2004 election cycle by Archbishop Burke, Bishop Chaput and Archbishop Sheridan about highlighting the primacy of the life issues when deciding how to vote.

Added Nash, “You can speak out on certain issues, saying that these issues have primacy. And therefore, for ‘those who have eyes to see and ears to hear’, they will receive that Gospel message.”

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.

The Story of a Voting Guide

EL CAJON, Calif. — The 2006 version of Catholic Answers Action’s Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics became available in late July.

Like the previous version distributed in the 2004 election cycle, the 16-page guide identifies five “non-negotiable” issues that Catholic Answers says should take precedence when Catholics are deciding how to vote.

The issues are abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning and homosexual “marriage” — all of which must be universally opposed by the Catholic voter.

“On most issues that come before voters or legislators, the task is selecting the most effective policy to implement or apply a moral principle. Good Catholics must embrace the principles, but most of the time there isn’t a specifically ‘Catholic position’ on the best way to implement that principle,” the guide states.

“But some issues concern ‘non-negotiable’ moral principles that do not admit of exception or compromise,” the guide continues. “One’s position either accords with those principles or does not. No one endorsing the wrong side of these issues can be said to act in accord with the Church’s moral norms.”

The guide lays out the case against each of the five non-negotiable issues that it says Catholics must oppose, citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) and several other recent Vatican documents pertaining to the political responsibilities of Catholics.

The voter’s guide includes a section on how to discern which candidates conform most closely to Church teachings on the key issues, stressing that Catholic voters should “not vote for candidates who are right on lesser issues but who will vote wrongly on key moral issues.”

Jimmy Akin, director of communications for Catholic Answers Action, said that as in 2004, the guide will be distributed in booklet form and through downloads from Catholic Answers Action’s website ( And as in 2004, when 10 million of the guides were distributed, Catholic Answers Action plans to run full-page ads in national media like USA Today to promote public awareness of the publication.

Tom Nash, director of special projects for Steubenville, Ohio-based Catholics United for the Faith, applauds the focus the guide gives to its five “non-negotiable” issues.

“Some issues are non-negotiable because they regard the fundamental right to life, without which there are no other rights because one is not alive to exercise them, a grim reality that is manifest in the millions of persons killed via abortion and other means,” Nash said. “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion regarding the resolution of many other problems, including dealing with poverty and waging war, but not with regard to fundamental issues like abortion and euthanasia.”

— Tom McFeely