US: Catholics for a Free Choice Files IRS Complaint Against Operation Rescue West's Opposition to John Kerry

Catholics for a Free Choice
Antichoice group violates election law with ad in conservative weekly.
Statement of Frances Kissling, President, Catholics for a Free Choice.
Washington, DC--Catholics for a Free Choice today filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against Operation Rescue West for blatant violation of its charitable status. CFFC called on the IRS to exercise its "authority to revoke the tax-exempt status of this organization and bring an action to enjoin this organization's planned political activities in Boston" during this weeks Democratic Party Convention.

On July 15, 2004, the antichoice group published a full-page ad in the Wanderer, an ultra-conservative national Catholic weekly. In the ad, Operation Rescue West called on readers to make what it says is a "tax-deductible donation to help pay the bills and affect the outcome of the election" and called for readers to give a tax-deductible donation to help "defeat [John Kerry] in November and enable President Bush to appoint a pro-life Supreme Court Justice to finally overturn Roe v. Wade." In making its case, Operation Rescue West cited the statements of several cardinals and bishops who have attacked Catholic politicians for their support of a woman's right to choose and invited the support of readers as they are "going into the middle of a war in Boston." [Emphasis in original.]

The group said that the money raised would be spent in Boston during the Democratic Convention, where it plans to distribute antiabortion, anti-Kerry materials and display highly visible ads on trucks at key sites. This egregious violation of US tax laws, which prohibit charitable organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office, is perhaps the most visible and vicious of recent campaigns by various tax-exempt organizations opposed to abortion rights and, by extension, candidates who support these rights.

During this presidential campaign, antichoice activists and organizations have violated, if not the letter, certainly the spirit of the law. In May 2004, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a complaint with the IRS against Bishop Michael Sheridan of the Colorado Springs diocese in Colorado. While a handful of bishops have issued statements threatening to deny prochoice Catholic politicians communion, Bishop Sheridan issued the most wide-reaching statement to date when he said he would deny communion to both prochoice Catholic politicians AND Catholics who vote for candidates who are prochoice. The Catholic church, along with other religious institutions, is a tax-exempt charitable organization. In return for that exemption, religious institutions agree to neither explicitly nor implicitly endorse nor oppose any specific candidate for elected office. By barring Catholic elected officials and voters from communion during an election year, Bishop Sheridan's action could only be construed as a statement of opposition to the hundreds of Catholic prochoice candidates who will be running for political office this year, including a candidate in a tight Senate race in Colorado.

Earlier this year, abetted by former US ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn, Michael Galloway launched Your Catholic Voice, a 501(c)(4) organization. In addition to lobbying on specific state and national issues, the group aims to educate and mobilize Catholic voters around a select group of issues, most notably "life," "family" and religious "freedom." According to Roll Call, the voter education program will "mobilize those Catholics to vote against politicians" who take positions Your Catholic Voice disagrees with. Galloway himself claims to have been "put in place here by the Vatican" and singled out Sen. Kerry for having "created a public scandal by receiving Holy Communion."

A number of other conservative Catholic groups have engaged in questionable campaigns and statements during this election cycle. The American Life League published several ads targeting Catholic prochoice Democratic members of Congress, with Wild West-style "Wanted" posters. The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, while protesting that it does not get involved in electoral politics, singled out one "vitally important" race: the Republican Senate primary between the "pro-life Pat Toomey and the pro-abortion Arlen Specter." On the eve of the Democratic Convention, Fr. Frank Pavone, the president of the charitable organization Priests for Life, was due to speak at a meeting entitled, "Election 2004: How to Vote Authentically Catholic" where attendees learnt how to "support the pro-life, pro-family positions of candidates for local and national office." Earlier, Bush adviser and Crisis magazine publisher Deal Hudson sent around an email effusively praising Bobby Jindal, a Republican candidate for Congress from Louisiana.

Numerous polls of Catholic attitudes have shown that the positions taken by these groups are not mainstream Catholic positions. The most recent, a June 2004 poll of 2,239 Catholics by Belden Russonello & Stewart and commissioned by CFFC, showed that 83 percent of respondents believe that Catholic politicians are not religiously obliged to vote on issues the way bishops recommend and 61 percent of Catholics support legal abortion.

Charitable status is a privilege, not a right. Organizations are free to educate their members and the public, but must do so within the legal limits of their charitable status. Organizations even have the right to participate in the election process if they choose to renounce their charitable status. What they are not free to do is flout the federal statutes and IRS regulations that govern all charities by endorsing or targeting candidates during an election year.

Catholics for a Free Choice has called on the IRS to investigate Operation Rescue West's direct engagement in political activity and to consider revoking the tax-exempt status of this and any other organization that violates the law.

Catholics for a Free Choice is a non-partisan organization. We do not support or oppose candidates for public office. CFFC shapes and advances sexual and reproductive ethics that are based on justice, reflect a commitment to women's well being, and respect and affirm the moral capacity of women and men to make sound decisions about their lives. Through discourse, education, and advocacy, CFFC works in the US and internationally to infuse these values into public policy, community life, feminist analysis, and Catholic social thinking and teaching.