Electioneering Error: Religious Right Is Missing The Point On Bishop Jenky’s Campaign Intervention

AU reported the diocese for instructing church members to vote against Obama, not for merely flinging rhetorical mud at the president.

As usual, Religious Right leaders are confused. This time it seems that a lot of our opponents don’t understand why Americans United reported the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Ill., to the Internal Revenue Service for illegal church politicking.

Let me explain.

In an April 14 sermon at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Bishop Daniel Jenky said, in part, “Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services, and health care. In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama – with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path.”

Jenky, the top official of the diocese, later said, “This fall, every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences, or by the following fall our Catholic schools, our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Newman Centers, all our public ministries -- only excepting our church buildings – could easily be shut down.”

Tax-exempt organizations, including churches, are prohibited by federal tax law from engaging in partisan politics. Any rational person knows Jenky was telling his parishioners to vote against Obama. And the IRS treats such open intervention in a political campaign as a violation of the law. (Even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warns its clergy not to endorse or oppose candidates or “take any action that reasonably could be construed as endorsement or opposition.”)

But some people don’t seem to comprehend the situation. After AU reported the Peoria diocese, our critics wrote to tell us that we “don’t understand what church-state separation means.” One email correspondent even suggested that we look up that definition in Wikipedia.

Trust us. We know what it means. We’ve been defending religious liberty since 1947, which is quite a few years longer than Wikipedia has been around. We’ve got this stuff covered.

Others accused us of stifling free speech. Even if they didn’t agree with Jenky’s extreme hyperbole, they felt he had every right to address public issues. They’re partly right about that, of course. Religious leaders do have a constitutional right to discuss the moral implications of public policy issues, even in extreme language if they choose.

But Jenky didn’t stop there. The bishop, the top employee of a tax-exempt institution, used his official position to urge congregants to vote a certain way. He not only issued his election orders from the pulpit, he posted them on the church’s tax-exempt website.

In short, AU reported the diocese for instructing church members to vote against Obama, not for merely flinging rhetorical mud at the president.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group founded by radio and TV preachers, weighed in on this issue predictably, telling supporters that “clergy are not only entitled to their political opinions -- they are entitled to voice them from the pulpit!”   

ADF lawyers are fudging the issue. Clergy can voice “political opinions” from the pulpit, but they cannot intervene in elections. If a church uses tax-exempt personnel and resources to support or oppose a candidate, it is going beyond its legal bounds.

ADF attorneys are recklessly encouraging pastors to break the law in the hope that the IRS will revoke a church’s tax exemption, thus prompting a lawsuit that tests the constitutionality of the federal mandate. (We’ve been down this road before, and the federal courts upheld federal tax law.)

Meanwhile, Jenky’s tirade has brought a rebuke from the faculty at the University of Notre Dame where the bishop serves on the governing board. More than 90 faculty members have signed a petition asking Jenky to either apologize or resign his board position.

Said the letter: “Bishop Jenky’s comments demonstrate ignorance of history, insensitivity to victims of genocide, and absence of judgment.”   

They’re absolutely right, and so is Americans United. Jenky’s law breaking is pretty straightforward. Now it’s up to the IRS to take the next step.