Complaint to IRS Against Catholic Bishops is Bogus 'Scare Tactic,' Religious Rights Attorneys Say

November 5, 2012 - 6:52 PM

USCCB, Catholic bishops, Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop Niederauer

FILE - Archbishop George H. Niederauer, left, and Chicago Cardinal Francis George, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at a news conference, Nov. 16, 2009, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)

(CNSNews.com) - Religious freedom attorneys on Monday say a liberal activist group staged an unwarranted attack on the Catholic Church last Friday, when it formally asked the IRS to investigate the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for allegedly engaging in prohibited political activity in violation of its nonprofit tax status.

“This is a scare tactic by folks who disagree with the issue stances of various people of faith – in this case the Catholic Church,” Peter Breen, executive director and legal director of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, told CNSNews.com.

The complaint by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington alleges that the nation’s Catholic bishops are “abusing their positions to advocate against the election of President Barack Obama,” and anticipated further actions during this weekend’s sermons.

Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel and dean of the Liberty University School of Law, dismissed the CREW complaint out of hand.

“CREW has an agenda, there’s no question – and that agenda is to silence Christian and conservative voices. So this is part of their modus operandi,” Staver said.

“I don’t believe that this complaint against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is going to amount to anything, but this is another attempt to try to intimidate people who have conservative views or express conservative viewpoints,” he told CNSNews.com.

“Everything that I’ve seen from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is clearly within the boundary of political activity for nonprofit organizations,” Staver added.

Bishop Daniel Jenky, diocese of Peoria, Ill.

Bishop Daniel Jenky, diocese of Peoria, Ill.

Erik Stanley, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund), said flatly that CREW’s complaint is “bogus.”

“This is a favorite tactic of advocacy groups that believe in a radical secularist view of America,” Stanley told CNSNews.com.

“They believe that the Church has no role in society – and certainly no role in government. And one of their favorite tactics is to try to intimidate churches by filing complaints against them with the IRS. This has happened over and over.

Stanley said CREW and another group -- Americans United for the Separation of Church and State -- have often issued such complaints in an attempt to silence groups.

“These sorts of complaints are not uncommon,” he said.

“The problem with that is that usually the IRS never acts on these complaints because they are baseless – but nevertheless the damage is done, because of the public perception that is out there,” Stanley said.

“These groups will usually file the complaint and then will accompany it with a press release saying things like, ‘The Church violated the law.’ In reality, the church probably didn’t violate the law, but nevertheless the public has that in its mind now.”

The Internal Revenue Code does prohibit electioneering -- supporting a particular candidate in an election, Breen said, but the charges CREW levied, especially against a letter that Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky ordered read from the pulpit in the Diocese of Peoria -- were ludicrous.

“What CREW is complaining about is activity that pastors of souls have been doing for hundreds of years in this country, which is talking about issues and urging their parishioners to vote – and that’s perfectly legal and constitutional.

“Many of the great social movements of history had religious origins – whether it was the civil rights movement or the anti-slavery (movement), pastors instructed their flocks on these issues and urged them to vote. Again, that’s perfectly acceptable.”

Staver, who has argued numerous religious liberty cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won, said churches shouldn’t cower before the IRS when it comes to speaking the truth.

“Churches and other nonprofits cannot specifically endorse a candidate for political office, however not one church has ever lost its tax exemption,” Staver told CNSNews.com.

“From 1954, when this was placed into the IRS code until the present, not one church has ever lost its exemption. I think that’s the beginning premise,” Staver said.

Churches can – but are not required to – obtain letters from the IRS guaranteeing their tax-exempt status, he said. One church lost its IRS letter.

“In 1992, one church, the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., actually opposed then-Gov. Bill Clinton, that church lost its letter, but it never lost its tax exemption. No one’s contribution was ever taxed. Most churches don’t have letters. Those that do don’t need letters.

“Other nonprofits that are not churches, however DO need a letter and if they lose that letter, they lose their tax exemption and have to pay taxes,” Staver said.

“But churches, first of all, don’t need a letter, and if they ever do lose their letter it doesn’t result in losing their tax exemption. This church did lose its letter, but not one contribution was ever taxable.”

ADF’s Stanley, meanwhile, said tax-code restrictions on churches, at least on one level, are absurd.

“There’s no question that the Catholic Church believes itself to be under attack from the Obama administration with regard to its religious freedom. So to somehow now say that the Catholic Church is going to be punished for speaking out against that attack just illustrates the absurdity of the tax-code restrictions against churches,” Stanley said.

The IRS has not yet indicated if it will investigate the CREW complaint, but it did recently say that it won’t challenge churches over tax-exemption questions in this election cycle, according to Liberty Counsel's Mat Staver.

“This election, churches are essentially going to get a free pass,” Staver said. “The IRS said they are not going to audit any churches because they don’t have appropriate guidelines and therefore lack authority to engage in this activity.”