Tax Abuse by the Christian Right: Catholic Edition
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue May 09, 2006 at 06:32:49 PM EST
Catholics for a Free Choice has filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service alleging abuse of the 501(c)(3) tax status of Priests for Life, a militant antiabortion group headed by Fr. Frank Pavone.

The action comes as the 2006 campaign season heats up -- and tax abuse by tax-exempt organizations, particularly those of the religious right, are becoming a bigger issue. After years of controversy, last Februrary the IRS announced a major education and enforcement program. The IRS sought to make the matter as plain and simple as possible:

"...all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."

In a press release today, Catholics for a Free Choice, declared that Priests for Life, "has issued a direct challenge to the Internal Revenue Service and started recruiting "volunteers who want to do some concrete work to elect pro-life candidates in 2006."

"Once again, we need `all hands on deck,'" wrote Fr. Frank Pavone in an April 11 email to supporters. "Because in this year's elections, we have to make sure that the President has a Senate who will not block any further nominations he may be able to make to the Supreme Court. This will be the most important result of the election."
...Pavone also provided action steps for supporters, such as "Giving a brief talk in a Church after Communion, with the pastor's permission," and "Meeting with your pastor to inform him about resources he can use to promote political responsibility."

This is not the first time the antichoice and Catholic organization has flouted its tax-exempt status in an attempt to influence an election. In October 2004, CFFC filed an IRS complaint detailing Priests for Life's involvement in prohibited electoral activities. The IRS released a report in February 2006 that, while not mentioning organizations by name, detailed its investigation of what it called an unprecedented increase in political activity by exempt organizations.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, noted that "Priests for Life's current violations and open and flagrant contempt for the IRS and the tax-exempt regulations is breathtaking. Fr. Pavone is fully aware of the legal parameters of 501(c) (3) incorporation and its restrictions on political activities. He has clearly decided he is above the law." In his April 24 blog entry, he wrote:

We will repeat and intensify this year all we did in the previous election cycles. The pro-abortion groups, the liberals in the Church, the over-cautious attorneys, and the people who don't want to see the Church "influencing elections" can yell and scream all they want. In fact, I invite them to. It won't make a shred of difference. We will move forward with more boldness than ever before.

Last week, Catholics for a Free Choice filed a complaint with the IRS against Priests for Life. It is unacceptable for any organization to reap tax benefits for a charitable mission and then use resources to engage in illegal political work. Charitable status is a privilege, not a right. Organizations are free to educate their members and the public, but must do so within the legal limits of their charitable status. Organizations even have the right to participate in the election process if they choose to renounce their charitable status. What they are not free to do is flout the federal statutes and IRS regulations that govern all charities by endorsing or targeting candidates during an election year.

The complaint against Priests for Life is but the latest in a series of well-founded complaints filed against religious right groups, notably in Ohio and in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania group that is the focus of the tax abuse complaint, the Pennsyvania Pastors Network held a political training conference that figures into the complaint. Pavone was one of the featured speakers:
"We are blessed to have a president who is able to and knows why he must and is convinced why he should nominate justices who don't invent rights out of thin air like Roe v. Wade did, but he needs a Senate, he needs a Senate.... He got the two nominees through that process precisely because there were not enough senators to support the ludicrous idea of a filibuster against a Supreme Court nominee. And the church of Jesus Christ, standing in midst of this culture of death and putting two and two together, has to conclude that we need to be part of the assurance that here in this particular place in this particular time this particular president needs the kind of support that he has today but might not necessarily have after November of 2006. [He] needs the kind of support that is necessary in order to get that additional common-sense pro-life justice on the court."
The Boston Globe recently reported that IRS Commissioner Mark Everson, said:
"I'm very concerned about continued inappropriate activity this [election] cycle... Every indication I get is that this will be a problem and probably more of a problem. . . . My worry is that clever attorneys are seeing that this is a much less regulated area and they are willfully skewering some activities into the nonprofits and to some degree the churches as well."
The Globe continued:
While the IRS has increased the number of agents who investigate charity abuse, some critics say the IRS is barely scratching the surface of the problem. For example, the IRS has no systematic method of auditing churches, which are not required to file tax returns and are rarely audited unless a complaint is lodged against them.

In its recent study, the IRS found that churches were violating the law by either urging people to vote for a particular candidate, endorsing a candidate, or donating money to a candidate.

Indeed, tax abuse by churches and other tax exempt groups has been part of the organizing strategy that has built the religious right for a generation.

"During the 2004 presidential campaign," the Globe reported for example,  "the Republican Party requested that it be sent church membership directories, with a GOP official writing that ''access to these directories is critical" to identifying those ''likely to be supportive of President Bush's compassionate conservative agenda."

The IRS has put in place a new system for fielding complaints. The new system has a panel that is intended to be highly professional, and insulated from partisan political pressures. Complaints are forwarded to the panel, which then votes whether the complaint has sufficient merit to move forward to be investigated. Given the attitudes of people like Pavone, whose sense that his faith-based political program is above the law, the panel can expect to have a busy year.

This is a word to the wise across the religious and political spectrum.  

But its important to keep in mind, that just because a complaint is filed, doesn't mean that there will be an investigation. And just because there is an investigation, does not mean that the insitution did anything wrong.  And just because a church or charity crosses the line, does not necessarily mean that they will lose their non-profit tax status.  

It all depends.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue May 09, 2006 at 06:50:00 PM EST

This could be a first, Fred -- a real meteorological phenomenon.

Somebody check their Guinness Book of Records. Has lightning ever struck a rainmaker before?  ;-)

You gotta admit that it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

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by johncity on Sat Oct 26, 2019 at 09:08:00 AM EST

Pavone is what Sister Joan would call "pro-birth" as opposed to "pro-life." Isn't is odd how he never discusses economic justice issues? He's a one-issue Catholic,

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue May 16, 2006 at 07:58:53 PM EST

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