Catholic Church Intervention In New Mexico Campaign Sparks Irs Complaint By Watchdog Group

Church Electioneering Prohibited Under Federal Tax Law, Says AU

The Internal Revenue Service should investigate the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe for violating federal tax law by intervening in the New Mexico governor's race, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United asserted that the Archdiocese engaged in illegal partisan politicking by asking its 92 parishes to disseminate a flier that portrays Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Richardson as "pro-abortion" and his Republican opponent John Sanchez as "pro-life."

According to news accounts, Archbishop Michael Sheehan directed Catholic parishes to disseminate the flier after being contacted by Dauneen Dolce, an official of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico. The flier was reportedly distributed in at least 12 Catholic parishes in the weeks before the election.

Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "The Catholic Church is perfectly free to take a stand on abortion, but it cannot endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Archbishop Sheehan may not use tax-exempt church resources to do partisan politicking.

"Voters are perfectly capable of making up their minds about candidates without church officials trying to tell them who to vote for," Lynn continued. "Archbishop Sheehan has stepped over the line and flouted federal tax law in the process."

The flier, prepared by the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico, lists the gubernatorial candidates' votes on abortion-related bills and states, "Bill Richardson has voted for all pro-abortion bills and against all pro-life bills in the years he served in Congress from 1984-1997." The flier asserts that "John Sanchez has a 100% pro-life voting record."

In his Oct. 29 complaint to the IRS, Lynn observed, "Given the Catholic Church's well-known stance against legal abortion, the distribution of this flier clearly violates the Internal Revenue Code, which forbids non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in campaigns for public office. While distribution of nonpartisan voter education materials is not prohibited, distribution of materials intended to solicit support for candidates is not permissible under federal tax law."

Section 501(c)(3) of federal tax law prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office.

The IRS has a "zero tolerance" policy for violations. In 1995, the federal agency revoked the tax exemption of the Church at Pierce Creek in upstate New York after the church paid for newspaper advertisements against presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.

The IRS investigation was sparked by a formal complaint filed by Americans United. The federal courts later upheld the revocation.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also promoted and distributed materials acknowledging federal tax law's prohibition on church-based partisan politicking. Mark E. Chopko, general counsel to the Conference, wrote a memo in 1996 outlining legal prohibitions against churches' political campaign activity.

Chopko's document concludes that churches may not legally intervene in partisan campaigns through church endorsements, nor through distribution of "biased" campaign materials intended to guide parishioners in how to vote. In light of the flagrantly slanted flier distributed in Santa Fe, the Archdiocese appears to have ignored the legal advice of its own denominational headquarters.

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.

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.