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Catholics for a Free Choice Files IRS Complaint Against Denver Archdiocese

October 25, 2004

Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput violates election law with repeated efforts
to direct voters toward Bush vote.
Statement of Frances Kissling, President, Catholics for a Free Choice

Washington, DC—With eight days remaining until Americans will choose their next president, Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) has filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against the Archdiocese of Denver for Archbishop Charles Chaput’s attempts to influence the outcome of the election.

CFFC has called on the IRS to exercise its “immediate action against the Archdiocese of Denver, which has violated its status as a public charity under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 501(c)(3) by intervening in campaigns for public office.”

Archbishop Chaput, leader of the Archdiocese of Denver, has repeatedly engaged in voter instruction by explicitly urging Catholics to vote against candidates who support abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. In fourteen of 28 of his columns in the archdiocese’s weekly newspaper, Archbishop Chaput has repeatedly and continuously urged voters to reject candidates opposed to the organization’s views. This publication has been made widely available through the archdiocese website, as well as through traditional print subscriptions. The archbishop has also attempted to influence voters during public speeches, interviews and on Friday, October 22, in an op-ed in the New York Times.

Without mentioning anyone by name, the archdiocese has frequently equated a vote for certain candidates as sinful and even outright “evil.” In the “Archbishop’s Column” in the Denver Catholic Register, Archbishop Chaput has instructed Catholics how to vote by suggesting that voting for Catholic candidates who do not agree with the archdiocese betrays the church. In an April 14, 2004 column entitled “How to tell a duck from a fox: Thinking with the Church as we look toward November,” the Archbishop questioned the honesty of Catholic candidates who do not walk lockstep with the church on abortion issues. Expanding on this he implicated the responsibility of voters to reject these candidates, “God will hold each of us accountable – from the average voter to senators and presidents – for how well we have used our political power to serve the common good and the human person.”

The archbishop concluded by specifically charging, “Candidates who claim to be ‘Catholic’ but who publicly ignore Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life are offering a dishonest public witness. They may try to look Catholic and sound Catholic, but unless they act Catholic in their public service and political choices, they’re really a very different kind of creature. And real Catholics should vote accordingly.” [Emphasis added.]

The Catholic church, along with other religious institutions, is a tax-exempt charitable organization. In return for that exemption, religious institutions agree to neither explicitly nor implicitly endorse nor oppose any specific candidate for elected office.

According to the New York Times, Archbishop Chaput has also instructed voters during public speaking appearances by reiterating presidential nominee John Kerry’s opposition to church teachings (“Group of bishops using influence to oppose Kerry,” October 9, 2004). In an interview for the same article, the archbishop likened a vote for a prochoice or pro-embryonic stem cell research candidate as a sin against the church, “If you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil? … And if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer if yes.”

The archdiocese has made the full transcript from this interview available on its website, where Kerry is specifically mentioned as one of the Catholic candidates contemplated by the archbishop.

Archbishop Chaput points out that the archdiocese has never endorsed a particular candidate; however, this does little hide the fact that he is providing clear guidance to voters on who to choose. Urging voters to reject prochoice candidates and those who favor embryonic stem cell research, specifically John Kerry, is the unmistakable goal of these communications.

A 501(c)(3) organization need not explicitly urge voters to support or oppose a particular candidate for illegal campaign intervention to take place. As the IRS staff training manual on election-year activities by tax-exempt organizations puts it:

“[A] 501(c)(3) organization may avail itself of the opportunity to intervene in a political campaign in a rather surreptitious manner. The concern is that an IRC 501(c)(3) organization may support or oppose a particular candidate in a political campaign without specifically naming the candidate by using code words to substitute for the candidate’s name in its messages, such as “conservative,” “liberal,” “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “anti-choice,” “Republican,” “Democrat,” etc., coupled with a discussion of the candidacy or the election. When this occurs, it is quite evident what is happening – an intervention is taking place.”

This year, CFFC has filed complaints with the IRS against Catholic Answers, Inc., Operation Rescue West, the Culture of Life Foundation and Priests for Life for their flagrant violations of their tax exempt status.

In filing these complaints, Catholics for A Free Choice does not infringe on either the right to free speech or the practice of religion. Each of these groups made a contract with the federal government and the IRS when they sought to be exempt from paying taxes. In return for such a privilege they agreed not to participate in election campaigns in ways that constitute an endorsement or opposition to specific candidates, explicitly or implicitly. In much the same way that campaign involvement by individuals and profit making corporations is regulated by law, the involvement of tax exempt organizations is regulated to prevent the indirect use of taxpayer funds in political campaigns. We think these laws are equitable and we call on all tax exempt organizations to follow them.