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Progressive Catholic Group Files IRS Complaint Against Priests for Life

March 27, 2007

Catholics for a Free Choice shows the antichoice organization is using its tax free status to illegally support the presidential campaign of Kansas senator Sam Brownback

Washington, DC—Today, Catholics for a Free Choice filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against Priests for Life because of its support for the presidential campaign of Kansas senator Sam Brownback. Such campaign intervention violates Priests for Life’s status as a public charity under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 501(c)(3).

The complaint to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) centers on two videos available on the Priests for Life Web site that implicitly (and, arguably, explicitly) endorse Senator Brownback’s candidacy.

The first  is a montage of the 2007 March for Life in Washington, DC, in which either Senator Brownback or his campaign signs reading “Brownback for President” are featured on screen for approximately ten percent of the time. No other presidential candidate or campaign materials are evident. The video includes multiple shots of Brownback marching with Priest for Life’s national director, Father Frank Pavone. Two shots are particularly egregious: The first, a close up of a “Brownback for President” sign filling the entire screen; and the second, a shot of Brownback giving a thumbs up and deliberately framed to include yet another clearly readable “Brownback for President” sign.

The second video, however, is even more clearly evidence of illegal campaign intervention. The video consists of Senator Brownback’s appearance at the National Memorial Service for the Pre-Born on January 22. Senator Brownback (introduced to audience shouts of “the next president!”) gives a speech, concluding with an explicit reference to his candidacy:

“And on Saturday, I announced a little endeavor I’ll do in moving forward for life: I’m running for president [applause], and this is one of the key issues. This is one of the key issues, and I wanted to come here to be a full-scale candidate and one who’s going to be pushing and standing in the fight for life.”

The two videos clearly demonstrate PFL’s support for Brownback’s candidacy. In addition, during Brownback’s address at the National Memorial Service, Priests for Life has added a graphic with the “Priests for Life TV” logo, the identifier “Senator Sam Brownback,” and, flagrantly, the URL for Brownback’s campaign Web site, According to our letter to the IRS, “The production, editing, and online hosting of these videos appears to represent a significant-and illegal-outlay of charitable funds.”

The complaint against Priests for Life comes just days after the group threatened legal action against Catholics for a Free Choice based on specious allegations and arguments. In a 15-page letter from its lawyers, Priests for Life outlined spurious complaints about a recent publication from CFFC, “Faithless Politics: Priests for Life Defies Constitution and Conscience.” The publication, fully footnoted and exhaustively researched, outlines the “unapologetic electoral campaigning” Priests for Life has carried out since its founding in 1990.

In a statement, Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, said. “In an ironic twist, the complaint to CFFC showed how brazen Priests for Life is about breaking the law. The letter states, ‘Moreover, the record is crystal clear that Fr. Pavone and Priests for Life encourage the support for pro-life candidates, not Republican candidates.’ Let me tell Fr. Pavone and his lawyers, the law is also crystal clear: Nonprofit organizations may not use tax-exempt funds to support any candidates, Republican, Democratic or those of any other hue. This futile attempt to stop our work to counter their own egregious electoral campaigning will not succeed, as our complaint today shows.”

The CFFC complaint is the third filed against Priests for Life. In October 2004, CFFC filed a complaint detailing Priests for Life’s involvement in prohibited electoral activities in support of Republican candidates, including President George W. Bush. In May 2006, the CFFC complaint concerned a call from Pavone for his followers to start recruiting “volunteers who want to do some concrete work to elect pro-life candidates in 2006.”

Pavone continued:

“We will repeat and intensify this year all we did in the previous election cycles. The pro-abortion groups, the liberals in the Church, the over-cautious attorneys, and the people who don’t want to see the Church “influencing elections” can yell and scream all they want. In fact, I invite them to. It won’t make a shred of difference. We will move forward with more boldness than ever before.”

As outlined in CFFC’s complaint to the IRS, A charity may not:

  • direct people to the Web site of a candidate for the presidency;
  • redistribute campaign messages such as “Brownback for President;”
  • hold events at which the charity’s national director introduces a candidate’s campaign speech; or
  • anoint its preferred candidate by highlighting the candidate’s allegiance to the organization’s own views.

CFFC has asked the IRS to revoke the 501(c)(3) status of Priests for Life and impose appropriate excise taxes.

The IRS is clearly on the look out for illegal activity, having revoked the charitable status of Operation Rescue West in September 2006—following complaints from CFFC and others—and forced Catholic Answers to reorganize following intensive investigations into its electoral activity in support of antichoice candidates. The IRS released a report in February 2006 that, while not mentioning any organizations by name, detailed its investigation of what it called an unprecedented increase in political activity by exempt organizations.

In his statement, O’Brien continued,

“As the president of a charitable organization, I take my responsibilities under the tax laws very seriously. I’m all too aware that tax-exempt status is a privilege, not a right. Groups like ours are free to educate, but we must do so within the legal limits of our charitable status. If Priests for Life wishes to participate in the election process in the manner it has done so here, it must renounce its charitable status, or the IRS must take it away. It is unacceptable for any organization to reap tax benefits for a charitable mission and then use those resources to engage in illegal electoral work.”

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