Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua's plan to distribute voter guides in Roman Catholic churches could lead to tax problems for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In a March 30 letter to Bevilacqua, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn noted that tax-exempt charities, which includes churches, are "absolutely prohibited from intervening in political campaigns."
Newspaper reports indicated that the Archdiocese plans to distribute voter guides for the upcoming mayoral and city council primary election. The guide is to include nine issues, all of which closely track church concerns, and it is to be distributed the Sunday before the May 18 election.
The Internal Revenue Service, Lynn noted, has ruled that voter guides distributed by non-profit groups must be broadly based and not merely reflect an organization's known agenda. The IRS has also stated that guides released a few days before an election may be construed as an attempt to affect the outcome.
"Cardinal Bevilacqua, this entire scheme smacks of Christian Coalition-style tactics, and I am disappointed that the Archdiocese would consider such an ill-conceived and legally dubious project," wrote Lynn. "It clearly jeopardizes the tax exemption of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and all of its parishes."
Continued Lynn, "If you choose to ignore federal law on this matter, you would leave me with no other choice but to file a formal complaint against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia with the Internal Revenue Service. I urge you to reconsider your plans to intervene in the upcoming elections to protect the integrity of the political process and maintain the non-partisan character of your church."
Along with the letter, Lynn sent Bevilacqua two documents warning churches against distributing inappropriate voter guides. One was prepared by Milton Cerny, formerly Chief of the Exempt Organizations Ruling Area at the IRS, and the other by Mark E. Chopko, general counsel to the U.S. Catholic Conference.
Lynn noted that the IRS takes this issue seriously and that his group has reported several churches to the agency for improper politicking.
For example, in October of 1992 the Church at Pierce Creek, a Vestal, N.Y., congregation, ran full-page ads in two newspapers urging people to vote against then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Americans United reported the incident to the IRS, and in 1995 the federal tax agency revoked the church's tax-exempt status.
A Religious Right legal firm sued the IRS in an effort to get the church's tax exemption back, but just yesterday a federal judge in Washington upheld the federal tax agency's action.
"Cardinal Bevilacqua can choose to gamble with the Archdiocese's tax exemption if he chooses, but I wouldn't recommend it," said Lynn. "Churches must stay out of partisan politics and refrain from attempting to influence the outcome of elections. It's not only illegal, it runs counter to the mission of America's faith communities."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.