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New York Times

Anti-Abortion Group Loses Tax Exemption


The Internal Revenue Service this week revoked the tax exemption of an anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue West, after receiving a complaint that it had violated prohibitions on electioneering by nonprofits in 2004.

The group had promised tax deductions for contributions to help defeat the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry.

The organization said the agency’s ruling would have little impact on its operations.

“We have reorganized as simply Operation Rescue,” said Cheryl Sullenger, the group’s outreach coordinator. “Losing our tax exemption doesn’t have much of an effect on us, one way or the other. We have learned some lessons through this whole thing, and I think we’re in a better place now than we were before the I.R.S. investigation.”

The role of churches, religious organizations and charities in elections drew attention in the 2004 presidential campaign and has already become an issue as the midterm elections approach. Charities and churches are generally prohibited from campaigning for candidates but may take stands on issues and hand out voter guides, among other things.

Politicians across the political spectrum are courting churches this year as never before. The latest example is Attorney General Phill Kline of Kansas, a Republican who recently sent a memorandum to his campaign staff directing them to get him in front of as many congregations as possible at receptions and church services and to get ministers to introduce him to their wealthy congregants.

In a four-page memorandum dated Aug. 8, which was first reported by The Lawrence Journal-World, in Lawrence, Kan., Mr. Kline lists several churches that have agreed to distribute campaign literature. He also mentions the need to create lay campaign committees in each church and to collect church members’ e-mail addresses.

“Please try to get literature into everyone’s hands,” he wrote. “Check and work with pastor to see what is comfortable. In most instances, we should be able to place materials under the windshields of cars.”

Mr. Kline’s memorandum ends with a directive to give churches “I.R.S. rules guidance regarding what they can and cannot do (this should not take long – no use of church assets – can show in church as long as they do not deny opposition of showing their own video – no need to invite the other, just cannot deny – etc.) sign up sheets, show to give money contributions, etc.”

Marcus S. Owens, a lawyer who formerly headed the I.R.S. division that oversees charities, said some of the suggestions in the memorandum would cause churches to violate the law.

“Assume you’re a pastor who doesn’t know a lot about the law, and here’s the attorney general of the state coming to you and telling you it’s O.K.,” said Mr. Owens, who represents several nonprofits that the I.R.S. is investigating for possible political infractions. “Who’s going to be in a position to refute the attorney general?”

Sherriene Jones, Mr. Kline’s communications director, said the attorney general was well aware of laws proscribing the political activity of churches. Ms. Jones said that although the memorandum listed churches participating in political activities that might be seen as prohibited, Mr. Kline was referring only to the churches’ pastors, and to recruiting volunteers for his receptions, not for his campaign.

“The attorney general would never ask a church to do anything illegal,” she said.

In February, the I.R.S. said it had noticed a sharp increase in prohibited activities by charities and warned that it planned to reverse the trend. At the time, it said it was seeking to revoke the exemption of three organizations but did not name them, pending an appeals process.

Whether Operation Rescue West, which was also known as Youth Ministries Inc., was one of those charities is unclear. The I.R.S. does not comment on its reasons for revoking tax exemption, a step that Commissioner Mark Everson has characterized as “the nuclear option” to be used only as a last resort.

Catholics for a Free Choice, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of a woman’s right to choose abortion, filed a complaint against Operation Rescue West in 2004, citing its activities during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

It noted an advertisement Operation Rescue West placed in the July 15, 2004, edition of The Wanderer, a Roman Catholic weekly, seeking tax deductible contributions to help “defeat” Mr. Kerry, thus enabling President Bush to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

At the Democratic convention, members of Operation Rescue West drove around a truck featuring a large photo of a late-stage aborted fetus and the words “Kerry’s Choice.”

“It could not have been a more clear or blatant violation of the I.R.S. rules,” said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Ms. Kissling said she had no way of knowing whether her group’s complaint had prompted the I.R.S. investigation of Operation Rescue West. Catholics for a Free Choice has also filed complaints alleging prohibited political activity against Priests for Life, a religious order on Staten Island, and Catholic Answers, a lay Catholic evangelical group.

Jerry Horn, media director of Priests for Life, declined to comment “because this a common tactic of Catholics for a Free Choice to try to intimidate people into not exercising their rights under the federal laws.”

Catholic Answers responded to the complaint against it by forming a separate organization, Catholic Answers Action, under a different section of the tax code. Catholic Answers Action is tax exempt but cannot offer its donors tax deductions for their gifts.

Troy Newman, Operation Rescue’s president, said he did not know what structure the new organization, which was created a year ago, had been organized under.

“Whatever structure we have,” Mr. Newman said, “we are going to speak out, we’re not going to be intimidated, we’re not going to be muzzled and we’re not going to be gagged.”

This article originally appeared in the 15 September 2006 edition of the New York Times.

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