Catholics for a Free Choice Monitors Tax Abuse by Religious Right Agencies
Catholics for a Free Choice
has sent out an e-mail alert calling on Catholics to be on the look out for inappropriate partisan political activities by churches and Catholic antiabortion groups. Communications Director David Nolan writes:
While nonprofit groups are allowed to participate in many political activities such as voter education and get-out-the-vote efforts, some organizations continue to challenge election and tax law by engaging in activities which violate their tax-exempt status. This is especially the case with conservative Catholic pressure groups who vehemently oppose a women's right to choose and what they call the "five non-negotiable issues" of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and same sex marriage.
The actions of two groups thus far are particularly egregious and it seems the Internal Revenue Service is beginning to pay attention to them.
If you suspect inappropriate political activity has taken place in your parish or in your diocese on behalf of the institutional Catholic hierarchy or groups like Priests for Life, American Life League or Catholic Answers Action, please call CFFC at (202) 986-6093. We also encourage you to report any suspect activity to the Internal Revenue Service which will conduct an investigation.
This is smart politics, and long overdue. Much more on the flip.
Religious right groups have, over the years, been very aggressive in bending and breaking the clear rules that apply to all non-profit tax exempt groups in order to qualify for 501(c)(3) tax status. This year, the IRS has engaged in a very public effort to regain public confidence on the matter; educate non-profit groups about the rules, and promising a firm and fair enforcement campaign. Citizen groups like CFFC are actively monitoring groups with a history of such behavior.
CFFC has been concerned about the overt partisan political activities of the Catholic Church for a long time, and this year are being more aggressive about monitoring their activities, and reporting apparent violations of the IRS rules proscribing electoral politics by non-profit tax-exempt groups. They say that betwen now and election day, they will updates us about what they learn the partisan activities of tax-exempt groups, as well as parishes, clergy and other church employees acting in their official capacities.
Here at Talk to Action, we have discussed the general issue of tax abuse by the religious right before. At the time of CFFC's complaint to the IRS against Priests for Life, I wrote:
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 [Boston] 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.
I also posted a long discussion of the issue when the IRS announced their new focus, and 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."
Now that we are deep into the election season, here is what CFFC sent to activists about the two groups:
Catholic Answers Action is once again distributing a voter guide to influence the 2006 vote which is quite similar to their 2004 endeavor which earned them a mandated forced-reorganization from the IRS. Catholic Answers Action is the 501(c)(4) counterpart of Catholic Answers. In a legal advisory provided by the conservative James Bopp Jr. posted on their Internet site, www.caaction.com
Bopp proclaims that the CAA voter guide is in compliance with the IRS guidelines. Bopp is a usual suspect when it comes to representing and providing legal opinions for antichoice organizations and can be counted on to provide his clients with a liberal interpretation of election and tax law. Bopp also makes the same claims of legality for the election materials produced by Priests for Life. In the 2004 election cycle, CFFC filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against Catholic Answers, a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt organization, claiming that the organization blatantly violated the U.S. tax code for tax-exempt charitable organizations. The complaint stemmed from an August 31, 2004, newspaper advertisement containing the text of its "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics" that ran in regional editions of USA Today. In the ad, Catholic Answers called on readers to "eliminate from consideration candidates who are wrong on any of the five `non-negotiable' issues" and called for readers to give a tax-deductible donation to help distribute the voter guide.
Catholic Answers derives the five `non-negotiable' issues from a selective interpretation of Catholic doctrine and instructs Catholic voters "how to vote." The five "non- negotiable" issues are abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and same sex marriage. Catholic Answers recently chose to publicize the filing of the CFFC initiated IRS complaint as the reason that it formed Catholic Answers Action-a new 501 (c)(4) organization-which it thinks can engage in electoral activities in 2006. Because of the IRS findings and the forced reorganization, donations to Catholic Answers Action will not be tax-deductible. For 2006, the organization has posted a revised version of the voter guide, as well as a new version for Protestants titled "Voter's Guide for Serious Christians." According to the press release, the Protestant guide discusses "the same five non-negotiables but with a modified argument (dropping papal citations, for example, and adding more biblical citations)." We are reviewing these guides to see if they violate 501(c)(4) restrictions
Priests for Life
Few organizations have been as brazen about their electioneering activities as this Long Island and soon-to-be-Texas-panhandle-based organization. Indeed, the organization was founded on the principle of political involvement. At every national election and in apparent violation of its 501(c)(3) tax- exempt charity status, the group campaigns unambiguously for Republican candidates but takes care not to mention them by name.
PFL promotes a narrowly technical interpretation of the relevant tax law that fundamentally contradicts IRS advice. The tax agency's materials specifically rule out the possibility that 501(c)(3) groups can engage in electoral campaigning by using code words to stand in for candidates' names. Pavone clearly and defiantly stated precisely that view in 2001: When asked what "tangible result" PFL had obtained for the "impressive sums of money" it spent "on the  election," he replied, "The tangible result is now sitting in the White House. While we mentioned no candidate's name, our message was understood by many."
PFL has instructed supporters to vote for the most antichoice candidate from one of the two major parties--in practice, nearly always a Republican, even when a minor-party candidate is more antichoice than either of the two. Electoral realities, PFL told supporters in 2002, mean that "you are not free--to really choose the candidate you want." During the 2004 campaign, Pavone's view on the subject was indistinguishable from those of major- party politicos: "A vote for the `best' candidate who won't win takes a vote away from the better of the others, and hence favors the worst." Expanding that position, Pavone said in 2005 that Catholics should vote for "pro-life" parties, not just individual "pro-life" candidates. "The positions of the party to which the candidate belongs" Pavone states, matters. "By putting that candidate into office, you also help to put his/her party into power," he said.
Earlier this year, Pavone showed what he meant by those remarks: Faced with a Pennsylvania US Senate campaign in which both the Republican and Democratic candidates were antichoice, Pavone joined other conservative clergy in a "training session" that provided a forum for Republican Rick Santorum's taped views but no such platform for Democrat Bob Casey.
As a result of PFL's electioneering, Catholics for a Free Choice has challenged PFL's tax status with the IRS, on the bases of its prohibited campaigning for "pro-life" candidates and its violation of the IRS ban on material that "invites its audience to compare a candidate's positions with the organization's own views." One such challenge is pending at this writing. When Pavone found out about this action, he wrote in his August 7 web log under the title, "A Gift to `Catholics' for a Free Choice" that "every day from now until Election Day, which is Tuesday, November 7, I'm going to do something extra, that I wouldn't have otherwise done, to echo the message that we have to elect pro-life candidates at every level of government."
While the IRS does not inform those who report violations of tax law as to the outcome of the investigation, one thing is clear: Since CFFC reported PFL to the IRS in May, Pavone has gone from near regular postings on his web log to much more intermittent ones and his language has changed significantly.
Take this entry from April 24 where he writes, "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," and compare it to his more recent writings where he acknowledges that his personal endorsement of candidates "won't be paid for by Priests for Life or communicated through Priests for Life channels. They will be made and paid for by me as a private citizen, but speaking quite publicly."
Incidentally, in his web log post for September 1, Pavone proclaims that "After this Labor Day weekend, we'll hear more than ever about Elections 2006." We can hardly wait.
Indeed, hopefully, CFFC's activists kept an eye on Pavone's active support for disgraced former Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry's campaign for state senator in Florida. As Moiv, here at Talk to Action observed:
Yes, the tax-exempt status of religious organizations forbids overt campaigning for individual candidates. And Frank Pavone is Priests for Life. But what does that matter to a man whose contempt for federal law runs so deep that his reaction to the FACE Act -- which outlaws the violence he claims to disavow -- was to set it on fire?