Philadelphia Story

Cardinal Bevilacqua's Voter Guide Scheme Sparks Protest

Swiping a page from the playbook of the Christian Coalition, Roman Catholic Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua announced in March that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will produce voter guides for the city's upcoming primary and November general election.

Bevilacqua's action was apparently sparked by the Philadelphia City Council's decision last year to pass "domestic partners" legislation giving spousal benefits to the partners of gay city employees -- a measure the cardinal strongly opposes. The guide will ask candidates for mayor and city council where they stand on that issue as well as eight others.

"In recent years, the city council and the mayor, and even the school board, to some extent, have decided to become involved in issues of morality," Guy Ciarrocchi, spokesman for the Archdiocese, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The only responsible course of action for the Catholic Church is to participate in a debate started by others."

Churches and other non-profit groups are allowed to distribute voter guides only if they are unbiased, wide-ranging and do not track the organization's known position on issues. Critics say Bevilacqua's planned guide fails those standards.

In a March 31 letter to Bevilacqua, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn warned the Roman Catholic prelate that his actions could put the tax exemption of the Archdiocese and its local parishes at risk.

"The issues covered by your questionnaire are matters on which the Archdiocese has well-documented positions," Lynn wrote. "Issues such as abortion, public funding of private schools, legal recognition of same-sex marriages and regulation of Catholic hospitals are not wide ranging. On the contrary, the questions reflect the direct interests of the Archdiocese. Thus, it would appear that your proposed voter guide would be in direct conflict with federal tax law."

Insisting that the plan "smacks of Christian Coalition-style tactics," Lynn urged Bevilacqua to reconsider. If he refuses, Lynn asserted, "you would leave me with no other choice but to file a formal complaint against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia with the Internal Revenue Service."

The proposed voter guide appears to closely track concerns of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia. Other than abortion and domestic partners legislation, the issues it covers are regulation of church hospitals, condom distribution in public high schools, needle-exchange programs and a proposed "living wage" bill for contractors that requires companies doing business with the city to pay workers more than the minimum wage.

Lynn noted that some of the questions, like those found on Christian Coalition voter guides, are clearly slanted. The question dealing with regulation of church hospitals, for example, asks potential candidates if they support "forcing religiously affiliated hospitals to provide services inconsistent with their values/ethics." Lynn said the question fails to note that Catholic hospitals receive tax support, which opens them to reasonable regulations and requirements that they provide a full range of health care services.

The Archdiocese has vowed to go ahead with the political scheme. Bevilacqua plans to print the voter guide in the Archdiocese's newspaper and have it distributed in as many of the 108 parishes as possible. Ciarrocchi told the Philadelphia Daily News that the church will "not be intimidated out of the arena of public policy" and accused Americans United of threatening "essentially to close down the Roman Catholic Church in Southeastern Pennsylvania."

In an interview with the newspaper, Bevilacqua insisted, "We're not campaigning here. We're not telling people how to vote. We consulted our top legal experts to the U.S. bishops' level. We have the right to do what we did."

Ciarrocchi insisted that the Archdiocese had consulted with lawyers at the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and had modeled its voter guide on a similar guide produced by the state conference of bishops for statewide races last year.

But Americans United remains skeptical. In his letter to Bevilacqua, Lynn pointed out that the U.S. Catholic Conference's own attorneys warned Catholic churches against distribution of biased and narrowly focused voter guides in a 1996 memo.

In that document, USCC General Counsel Mark E. Chopko explained that the IRS has developed criteria to assess the permissibility of voter guides produced by churches, stating that the guides may not "indicate bias toward the organization's preferred answer" and must cover "a wide range of issues."

In addition, Lynn sent Bevilacqua a detailed memorandum written for Americans United last year by Milton Cerny, formerly chief of the Exempt Organizations Ruling Area at the IRS. The Cerny memo warns, "A church must ensure that the guide is truly non-partisan and does not endorse or oppose any candidate, either explicitly or by implication."

Noted Lynn in the letter to the cardinal, "If your voter guides list the positions of candidates on issues the church takes an active position on, the IRS could interpret that as an indirect endorsement of candidates that share your views."

Bevilacqua is one of the most conservative members of the U.S. church hierarchy. He has frequently intervened in local politics and last year personally appeared before the city council, urging members not to pass the domestic partners measure. Bevilacqua also frequently lobbies Pennsylvania lawmakers for aid to parochial schools.

In 1993 Bevilacqua told a magazine published by the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University that he wants to see a voucher plan implemented as soon as possible.

"If we can get it through in one state, then that's the foot in the door," he said. "That's what I want. I want to see it passed in one state and let it go through the courts to remove that notion of separation of church and state."

Five years earlier, Bevilacqua, who has a law degree, attacked church-state separation during a "Red Mass" in Washington. Speaking to an audience that included four Supreme Court justices, Bevilacqua called for a "synergetic friendship" between church and state.

"The time has come," he said, "to restore the vital relationship between the church and the state, between religion and law....If church and state journeying together are to engage in friendly conversation, there cannot be a towering, impregnable wall between them. Always needed is a clear line of demarcation between church and state, but it should be one which will still allow their supporting hands to reach out to the other in time of need, which will still allow them to look at the face of the other and see friendship and love in each other's eyes."

In other news about churches and politics:

The political watchdog group Common Cause has filed a complaint with the IRS against a Minnesota church that endorsed a state senate candidate after he gave it a large gift of stock.

Candidate Bob Kierlin admits he gave the church 700 shares of stock in his industrial supply company but has denied any wrongdoing. After Kierlin turned over the stock, valued at $27,000, to St. Peter's Church in Hokah, the church ran a statement in its March 28 bulletin saying, "Bob Kierlin is pro-life and pro-Catholic and we have to do all we can to help him get into office."

Common Cause board member Jim Ketcham said the action smacked of bribery. "Buying a vote is not supposed to take place in Minnesota, especially in 1999," he told news media.

The IRS is following through with plans to beef up staffing in the office that deals with non-profit organizations. The Non-Profit Times reported in March that an ongoing reorganization of the tax agency means that the tax-exempt division may nearly double in size from 2,100 employees to 4,000.

Marcus Owens, director of the exempt organizations division, told the publication that the plans are not finalized yet, but even if they go through he does not expect to see a dramatic increase in the number of non-profit organization that lose their tax-exempt status or receive "intermediate sanctions" -- penalties that fall short of revocation of exempt status.

"My guess is that the number might stay relatively constant," Owens said. "The intermediate sanctions really encourage organizations to put in place procedures and processes for ensuring that there are no diversions of their income and assets for inappropriate purposes. But organizations can lose exempt status because of lobbying, political activities and those kinds of issues will continue to take their toll."

The IRS has revoked the tax-exempt status of a now-defunct charity founded by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), insisting the organization was improperly used to advance a partisan agenda.

Attorneys for the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation say no laws were broken and have challenged the IRS action in court. The Foundation was originally formed to help inner-city youths, but James Cole, an investigator with the House Ethics Committee, found that six tax-deductible contributions totaling $117,000 were transferred to GOPAC, Gingrich's political action committee, in 1991-92. (Contributions to PACs are not tax deductible.)

Television preacher Pat Robertson was among the donors to the Foundation. Roll Call newspaper reported that Robertson's Family Channel donated $47,000 to the Foundation after receiving a personal plea from Gingrich in 1990.