Nonprofit Seeks IRS Investigation of Bishops and Partisanship

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November 3, 2012; Source: Wisconsin Gazette

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is in the news again due to a complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). CREW’s argument is that bishops have been advocating against the re-election of President Barack Obama. Examples CREW cites include Bishop Daniel Jenky, who compared Obama to Stalin and Hitler and required priests in his diocese in Illinois to deliver a statement that the Obama administration was engaged in an unprecedented assault on Catholic religious liberty. CREW also identified other Catholic leaders in New York, Wisconsin, Alaska, and Virginia as part of the effort of the bishops using “every tool in their arsenal, including warning parishioners that they may go to hell, to promote the candidacy of Gov. Mitt Romney.”

If CREW’s complaint is accurate, then the Conference is sort of doubly running afoul of IRS regulations prohibiting public charities from participating in electoral campaigns. The Conference of Catholic Bishops is a 501(c)(3) public charity, so it is clearly covered by the partisan electoral prohibition. In addition, the churches from which priests are allegedly delivering these anti-Obama sermons are religious institutions, which are also prohibited from partisan political activity.

What does prohibited political activity on the part of the bishops sound like, according to CREW? Here is a statement attributed to Jenky: “Nearly two thousand years ago, after our Savior had been bound, beaten, scourged, mocked, and crowned with thorns, a pagan Roman procurator displayed Jesus to a hostile crowd by sarcastically declaring ‘Behold your king.’ The mob roared back ‘We have no king.’ Today Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord.” Might parishioners interpret Jenky’s message to mean that voting for the Obama-Biden ticket (Biden is a practicing Catholic) leans toward the sinful?

It isn’t just CREW that sees a partisan political message coming from some bishops. Writing for America, which describes itself as the national Catholic weekly, Michael O’Loughlin writes, “Some Catholic thinkers, leaders, and even bishops have seemingly implied that voting for former Governor Mitt Romney is the only viable option for Catholic voters of good conscience.” Then there is the message that bishops and priests reportedly delivered on the last Sunday before the election: that “key parts of the Democratic Party’s platform are incompatible with Catholic values.” In a recent letter, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wisc. reportedly stated that the Democratic platform’s support for marriage equality and abortion rights were “intrinsic evils” that would jeopardize the souls of parishioners supporting Democratic candidates.

Will the IRS take action in any of these situations? As we have pointed out in several newswires concerning “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” and other incidents, the IRS has had opportunities to act on specific charges of nonprofit and religious involvement in partisan political activities and it hasn’t done so. Will it act on CREW’s complaint? On actions allegedly occurring just days before the election?—Rick Cohen