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Catholics for a Free Choice Files IRS Complaint Against Priests for Life

October 13, 2004

Antichoice organization misleads public with claims of nonpartisan voter education efforts as it attempts to influence election outcome.

Statement of Frances Kissling, President, Catholics for a Free Choice

Washington, DC—As the 2004 election draws near, certain charitable organizations are flouting their tax exempt status in their attempts to influence the outcome.  Groups such as Catholic Answers, Inc. and the Culture of Life Foundation have dismissed the legal parameters of their 501(c)(3) incorporation to push voters; a handful of Catholic bishops have issued coded and less coded instructions to Catholics regarding candidates for office; and just this week, Bishop Charles Chaput of Denver capped off his election year strategy with a thinly veiled endorsement of the president.

Today, Catholics for a Free Choice filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against the Priests for Life, an antichoice organization comprised of only 13 percent of the nation’s 47,200 Catholic priests, according to their 2000 membership information.  Priests for Life has cloaked itself in language suggesting that all of its election-related efforts are permissible nonpartisan voter registration, Get Out The Vote organizing and voter education efforts, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

On September 23, 2004, Priests for Life demonstrated flagrant abuse of its 501(c)(3) status that prohibits certain electoral activity when it promised to launch a million-dollar educational campaign in the final 30 days prior to the November 2 election.  It described this effort as “aimed primarily at church-going Christians, who, according to the polls, favor pro-life candidates.”  By targeting a particular group for a Get Out The Vote effort in favor of particular candidates, Priests for Life engaged in an established example of illegal partisan efforts.

The “Election Action Center” on the Priests for Life website offers “Legal Guidelines for What to Do in the Parish,” which includes links to IRS Publication 1828, opinion letters from counsel on particular activities and other resources.  However, the organization’s true and surreptitious campaign interventions cannot be so easily masked.

In a message on the Priests for Life website, Father Frank Pavone, the organization’s national director, urges readers to print and distribute a brochure entitled “You Wouldn’t Even Ask” in which he states:

“Any candidate who says abortion should be kept legal disqualifies him/herself from public service.  We need look no further, we need pay no attention to what that candidate says on other issues.  Support for abortion is enough for us to decide not to vote for such a person.”

Father Pavone echoes this sentiment in his public appearances on behalf of Priests for Life.  For example, Father Pavone told an audience in Green Bay, Wisconsin, “vote for candidates who oppose abortion, or at least for those who oppose it more than others.”

Likewise, Priests for Life urges those who share its political ideology to download and use the web banner ads that Priests for Life has produced and makes available on its website.  These banner ads read: “November 2nd Elections: You can help elect pro-life candidates.  Find out how” and then offer a link to the election page on the Priests for Life website.

The Priests for Life website makes the organization’s partisan purpose even clearer.  In a section of the website purporting to offer 501(c)(3)-appropriate education on the positions of the candidates, Priests for Life offers a link to partisan voter guides produced by the 501(c)(4) National Right to Life Committee and the guide produced by the political action committee We Vote Pro-Life PAC.  No similar links are made available to organizations with opposing views on abortion.  As the IRS has made clear, a 501(c)(3) may not distribute voter education material prepared by a PAC because “such material is prepared and distributed for the purpose of improving or diminishing a candidate’s prospects to be elected.”

The IRS has made it clear that a 501(c)(3) may not propose such a litmus test against which voters should measure candidates.  The problem, the IRS has said, is a 501(c)(3) communication that “invites its audience to compare a candidate’s positions with the organization’s own views.”  The Priests for Life brochure, the banner ads and Father Pavone’s statements on behalf of the organization are clear examples of such prohibited activity.

It is unacceptable for any organization to reap tax benefits for a charitable mission and then use resources to engage in illegal political work.  Charitable status is a privilege, not a right.  Organizations are free to educate their members and the public, but must do so within the legal limits of their charitable status.  Organizations even have the right to participate in the election process if they choose to renounce their charitable status.  What they are not free to do is flout the federal statutes and IRS regulations that govern all charities by endorsing or targeting candidates during an election year.

CFFC has asked the IRS to take swift action given Priests for Life’s threat to expand its illegal activities before the election.  We call on the IRS to consider revoking the tax-exempt status of this and any other organization that violates the law.