On The Santa Fe Trail

Americans United Urges IRS To Investigate Partisan Politicking By Catholic Archdiocese In New Mexico

People attending Sunday mass at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in San Juan Pueblo, N.M., Oct. 27 heard an unusual sermon.

Instead of ruminations on the nature of sin or an explanation of church teaching, congregants got a lecture on which candidate to support for governor. The Rev. Terry Brennan backed Republican John Sanchez and wielded a flier from the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico that attacked Democratic candidate Bill Richardson.

"I would say, yes, it's an endorsement," Brennan told the Albuquerque Journal days later. "We don't want someone who would take innocent life to be making laws or vetoing laws."

Brennan went on to tell the newspaper that he had explained to parishioners, "We have the opportunity to be bold and decisive and send a message and elect a candidate who will support life."

Then Brennan did something a lot of Catholic priests in the state did that Sunday: He passed out copies of the Right to Life flier to church members in the pews even though the material was produced by an organization that has a political action committee that formally endorsed Sanchez. The fliers praised the GOP nominee, noting his "100% pro-life voting record," his support for "a ban on partial birth abortion" and his belief that "life begins at conception."

Richardson, the fliers asserted, "has voted for all pro-abortion bills and against all pro-life bills in the years he served in Congress from 1984-1997."

One church went even further. The Holy Child Parish in Tijeras added a paragraph to the flier reading, "Richardson's record shows a lack of respect for human life. As governor, he would not serve the people of New Mexico on the life issues any better than he did as a congressman."

Distribution of the pro-Sanchez material in church wasn't just a spontaneous action on the part of a few local priests. In fact, the anti-Richardson campaign was part of a well-coordinated strategy between Right to Life of New Mexico and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

The archdiocese sent the fliers to all 92 parishes in the area, urging them to distribute it. As the Albuquerque Journal reported, officials at the archdiocese undertook the action after a meeting between Archbishop Michael Sheehan and Dauneen Dolce, head of Right to Life of New Mexico.

In a Sept. 27 letter to local parishes, the Rev. Bennett J. Voorhies, chancellor of the archdiocese, noted that while the church may not endorse candidates, it may distribute voter guides. "Therefore, after discussion with Archbishop Sheehan, I am enclosing the voting record fact sheet on the gubernatorial candidates provided by the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico. You may distribute it as you see fit."

There was one glaring problem, however: What Right to Life of New Mexico provided was not an objective "voter guide" but rather literature clearly designed to promote Sanchez while discouraging votes for Richardson. Under the tax status it holds, the Right to Life group and its PAC can legally produce such partisan material. But houses of worship may not distribute it.

When word of the fliers got out, the situation quickly grew heated. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe issued a statement asserting that it was not the intent of the fliers to endorse a candidate. 

"If the flier referred to...was construed by anyone as the church's endorsement of a candidate, I apologize," Voorhies said in a press release.

Brennan also backed away from his claims that he had endorsed Sanchez. 

"I never used the word 'endorse' or any synonym for endorse," the priest insisted after a meeting with Archbishop Sheehan. 

But Mark Oswald, an editor at the Journal, stood by the newspaper's characterization. 

"After being asked twice, then that's where we have that direct quote, 'I would say yes, it's an endorsement,'" Oswald said. "We stand by the story as written. By his own characterization, he considered it an endorsement."

Calling the activities in Santa Fe "what appears to be a case of improper partisan political activity," Americans United on Oct. 29 asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the matter, specifically the archdiocese's action in making a partisan voter guide available in churches.

"Given the Catholic Church's well-known stance against legal abortion, the distribution of this flier clearly violates the Internal Revenue Code, which forbids non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in campaigns for public office," Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn wrote to Steven T. Miller, director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the IRS. "While distribution of nonpartisan voter education materials is not prohibited, distribution of materials intended to solicit support for candidates is not permissible under federal tax law."

Although the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a New York-based organization of traditionalist Catholics, blasted AU for reporting the archdiocese, some Catholics in New Mexico applauded the action.

"Hopefully, the IRS will act quickly on this issue before all 'hell' breaks loose in this country," one area resident e-mailed to Americans United. "As a Catholic, I am appalled at the church's condoning of this political attack from the pulpit. Good luck."

Another Santa Fe-area Catholic, Tony Griego, told the Journal that the archdiocese has a pattern of intervening in elections. 

"This isn't the first time they've pulled this," he said. "They go through this every election. When they don't want somebody elected, they pull this issue out. It's wrong the way they're doing it."

This time, however, the church's attempts at political intervention failed. On Election Day, Richardson won easily, defeating Sanchez 58 percent to 37 percent.

A less ham-fisted attempt by the Catholic bishops to intervene in the Michigan gubernatorial race also fell flat. In early October, Cardinal Adam Maida issued a letter that was read in Catholic churches across the state, urging voters to remember the church's stand on life issues. The letter did not mention any candidate by name, but it was interpreted as an attack on Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic candidate.

Some conservative Catholics were dismayed that Maida did not more harshly criticize Granholm, who is Catholic and pro-choice. Dr. Monica Migliorino Miller, an associate professor of theology at St. Mary's College in Orchard Lake, Mich., formed a group called "Stop Granholm Church and Truth Project." Miller told the conservative National Catholic Register that she wanted Maida to meet with Granholm "to straighten her out."

Said Miller, "[Granholm] will continue to pass herself off as a Catholic in good standing as long as she is not reprimanded by the bishop, and we think that's a problem, especially when she continues to distort and misrepresent the church's social justice teachings on abortion."

Conservative Catholics in Michigan also demanded that church authorities discipline three priests who wrote a letter to the editor to the Detroit Free Press defending Granholm's right to hold pro-choice views. The three, who wrote the piece with an ex-priest, argued that Catholics should carefully consider church teaching but added, "[W]hen that teaching proves incomplete, or unconvincing, Catholics have both the right and responsibility to follow their well-formed conscience."

Granholm's support for legal abortion did not prove to be a liability at the polls. On Nov. 5, she defeated her Republican opponent, Dick Posthumus, the lieutenant governor, 51 percent to 48 percent.

In other news about religion and politics from campaign 2002:

 Americans United has asked the IRS to investigate churches in Texas and Maryland that endorsed candidates shortly before the election.

In Texas, the Rev. Joe Samuel Ratliff, pastor of the Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, endorsed Democratic candidate for Senate Ron Kirk during services on Nov. 3. According to press accounts, Ratliff told the congregation, "Go up and down the ballot and vote your conscience. But in that race, vote for Ron Kirk."

Noting that Kirk was trailing in the polls, Ratliff added, "The race is winnable. If you go vote, the polls don't matter."

An equally blatant endorsement occur­red in Prince George's County, Md., where the Rev. John A. Cherry of From the Heart Church Ministries hosted Demo­cratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend the Sunday before the election.

Newspapers reported that Cherry mimicked the flip of a voting machine lever and told the crowd, "I don't care what your persuasion is, you need to pull out your Democratic finger. If it sounds like I'm endorsing, take it as you want to." (Both Kirk and Townsend lost their races.)

Americans United also worked to advise houses of worship about the dangers of distributing slanted and partisan Christian Coalition "voter guides." In a statement issued Nov. 1, AU noted that the IRS has issued guidelines saying that material that favors certain candidates may not be distributed in churches.

"America's religious leaders shouldn't touch the Christian Coalition's campaign materials with a ten-foot pole," Lynn said. "The Coalition is trying to rope churches into a political machine to advance its partisan agenda. Pastors should see through the Coalition's scheme and keep their sanctuaries clear of slanted political fliers."