The election-year campaign announced today by Priests for Life, a New York-based religious group, may violate federal tax law, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national church-state watchdog group.
Priests for Life has developed a project to use "issue ads" before the November elections to pressure candidates to accept the anti-abortion position of the Roman Catholic bishops. At the press conference, group leaders said they would spend up to $1 million on the campaign.
According to Americans United, these activities raise legal concerns because Priests for Life is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) organization. Under federal tax law, churches and other similar tax-exempt groups are strictly prohibited from intervening in political campaigns.
"This project raises serious legal questions," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "We will be watching closely and will not hesitate to report violations of the law to the IRS."
While tax-exempt groups are permitted to take public stands on political issues, Lynn said this campaign is different because it appears to be aimed at specific candidates.
Lynn noted that Priests for Life's national director, the Rev. Frank Pavone, told the Associated Press that the group has met with pro-choice Catholic politicians to demand they conform to church doctrine on abortion. Pavone said the group is airing the ads after failing to persuade these politicians to change their minds.
Pavone also recently told U.S. News & World Report that his group may specifically target Catholic candidates if they "don't come around to the church's teaching."
Moreover, Pavone met with Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush in May, and according to the National Catholic Register, the priest declared the GOP hopeful "pro-life." He went to say, "I don't think any sane person can miss the fact that Al Gore is an apostle for abortion."
AU's Lynn said, "This is a tainted project. Pavone and his group appear to be targeting specific candidates. If they do, they run the risk of severe penalties by the Internal Revenue Service."
The IRS released a statement earlier this month reiterating the legal restrictions on tax-exempt groups' campaign activities. According to the IRS, these organizations may not support or oppose candidates even if they do so under the guise of a non-partisan issue.
"The political campaign prohibition of section 501(c)(3) may be violated even though the organization had a non-partisan motivation for intervening in a campaign," the IRS explained. The agency added, "(A)ctivities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of non-partisan criteria nevertheless violate the political campaign prohibition of section 501(c)(3)."
The penalties for violating federal tax law can be severe. In 1992, a New York church took out full-page newspaper advertisements opposing the presidential candidacy of then-Gov. Bill Clinton, prompting Americans United to file a formal complaint with the IRS. In 1995, the tax agency revoked the church's tax exemption.
Earlier this year, a federal appeals court upheld the revocation. The church had sued the IRS with assistance from TV preacher Pat Robertson's legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice.
For AU's Lynn, there are a great number of questions surrounding Priests for Life's project.
"This campaign raises legal questions, but it also may contribute a divisive religious element to this year's campaign," Lynn said. "When churches try to force dogma on all Americans through the political process, it seriously undermines the separation of church and state."
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.