* Tax status saved churches $145 billion over 10 years
* Complaints filed to U.S. Internal Revenue Service
* IRS received complaints in 2008 election also
By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO, Nov 12 Political watchdog and
secularist groups are asking the U.S. government to investigate
whether Catholic bishops and a Christian evangelical group
headed by preacher Billy Graham should lose tax breaks for
telling followers how to vote in this year's election.
Under constitutional protections of free speech and
separation of church and state, churches are free to speak on
any issue. But they risk losing tax breaks worth $145 billion in
the past decade if they violate Internal Revenue Service rules
by promoting or opposing any particular candidate. Other
non-profits also have special tax status.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a
political watchdog group, in its complaint to the U.S. Internal
Revenue Service, cited reports of individual bishops "abusing
their positions to advocate against the election of President
The group's executive director, Melanie Sloan, said some
bishops went too far by saying a vote for Democrats would mean
going to hell. "I don't think the Catholic bishops should be
intimidating parishioners to advocate for any particular
candidate," said Sloan.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation
complained to the IRS about possible illegal political campaign
intervention by Wisconsin Catholic bishops and the Charlotte,
North Carolina-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
IRS spokesman Dean Patterson declined to comment on the
complaints or on whether there was any investigation. "Federal
law prohibits the IRS from discussing specific taxpayers or
situations," Patterson said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, through its
spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said it would not comment on
what a bishop says in his diocese.
The Billy Graham group said that its newspaper ads in
publications like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today
advocated votes for candidates who support "biblical values" but
mentioned no candidate or party.
The ads, signed by Graham, asked voters to back candidates
who support "the biblical definition of marriage between a man
and woman" and who protect "the sanctity of life," an apparent
reference to the group's opposition to abortion.
The conference of bishops waged a campaign this year against
the Obama administration's health care requirement birth control
be covered by health insurance.
Church doctrine is opposed to contraception as a means of
birth control. Church leaders also spoke out against same-sex
marriage but were on the losing side in four states where the
issue was on the ballot.
THE POWER OF THE PULPIT
Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University who
worked for the Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh, said some bishops
seemed particularly politically active in this election.
In Cafardi's opinion, the bishops' conference did not cross
any tax-law lines but some individual bishops may have done so.
"The larger issue is that, irrespective of what the tax code
says, churches should be sacred spaces, free of partisan
politics," said Cafardi.
Among those whose political positions created controversy in
this campaign season was Springfield, Illinois, Bishop Thomas
Paprocki who warned his flock in a letter of "intrinsic evils"
in the Democratic platform's support of abortion and same-sex
marriage. A vote for someone who promotes such actions "places
the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy," he
Peter Breen, executive director of the Chicago-based Thomas
More Society, a law firm focused on Catholic issues, said the
complaint against Catholic bishops was meant to frighten people
of faith from challenging their political leaders, which
religious people have always been called to do.
"That's not electioneering - it's merely making statements
about public concern," said Breen of Paprocki's statement. "He's
not saying vote for Candidate A as opposed to Candidate B."
Green Bay, Wisconsin, Bishop David Ricken made a statement
similar to Paprocki's in an Oct. 24 letter to parishioners, but
later said his comments "should not be misunderstood as an
endorsement of any political candidates or parties."
In an April sermon, Peoria, Illinois, Bishop Daniel Jenky
said Obama, with his "radical, pro-abortion and extreme
secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path"
to that of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and German
dictator Adolf Hitler. The homily is posted on the diocese
newspaper's web site.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged
the IRS in October to investigate a Texas church that advised on
its marquee to "Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim!" - a
reference to Mormon Republican presidential candidate Mitt
Romney and Obama, who is not a Muslim.
Conservatives were not the only ones getting support from
the pulpit. According to an October Pew Research Center report,
40 percent of Black Protestants reported hearing about
presidential candidates from clergy at church, and the messages
overwhelmingly favored Obama.
Americans United also complained in the 2008 election about
a North Carolina Baptist group that invited Michelle Obama to
speak at an event that they said appeared to be a campaign
The Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans
United, said the IRS needs to start vigorously enforcing
restrictions against political speech by churches.
"This is extraordinarily important - one of the few
remaining restrictions on campaign spending," said Lynn. He
warned that if churches are allowed to say anything they want
politically and keep their tax benefits, "this would be a
gigantic new loophole and would not serve the church's interest,
or the public's."
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Nanette
Byrnes; Editing by Greg McCune and Jackie Frank)