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Group threatens to report Philadelphia diocese to IRS


Americans United for Separation of Church and State is threatening to seek an end to the Philadelphia archdiocese’s tax-exempt status if the archdiocese goes forward with its plans to distribute a voter’s guide.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister, a lawyer and head of the Washington-based group, said the question-and-answer format that the archdiocese is planning is just a cover for pointing out how candidates stand on “core issues of concern to the archdiocese.”

Lynn said he’s never heard of any Catholic archdiocese using “anything of this magnitude” to influence an election and that tax-exempt charities, which includes churches, are “absolutely prohibited from intervening in political campaigns.”

The archdiocese plans to publish the guide for this year’s city elections. It would report how candidates stand on nine issues, including abortion, school vouchers, gay rights and condom distribution in public schools and is to be distributed the Sunday before the May 18 election.

“We’re not telling people how to vote,” Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua told the Associated Press. “We consulted our top legal experts up to the U.S. bishops’ level. We have a right to do what we did.”

Frederick L. Voight, the executive director of the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan election oversight group, agreed.

“It is protected speech,” he said. “There are issues of moral concern to themselves and their parishioners.”

However, Lynn said in a statement that the Internal Revenue Service has ruled that voter guides distributed by nonprofit groups must be broadly based and not merely reflect an organization’s known agenda. Lynn also said the IRS has stated that guides released a few days before an election may be construed as an attempt to affect the outcome.

“This entire scheme smacks of Christian Coalition-style tactics, and I am disappointed that the archdiocese would consider such an ill-conceived and legally dubious project,” Lynn said. “It clearly jeopardizes the tax exemption of the archdiocese and all of its parishes.”

Lynn said that his group has reported several churches to the agency for improper politicking. In 1992, the Church at Pierce Creek, a congregation in Vestal, N.Y., ran full-page ads in two newspapers urging people to vote against then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Americans United reported the incident to the IRS, and in 1995 the IRS revoked the church’s tax-exempt status.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999