Americans United (AU) is a watchdog group based in Washington D.C. that seeks to protect religious freedoms and educate the American people about the separation of church and state. Yesterday AU (under the direction of its tax attorneys no doubt) wrote to the Internal Revenue Service — specifically the Director of the Exempt Organizations Division — asking for an investigation of a Catholic Church in Del Paso, TX. AU claims that the St. Raphael Catholic Church violated the restrictions of Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) that prohibits exempt organizations from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” The IRS has authority to revoke an organization’s tax exempt status, forcing them to find tax relief outside the parameters of 501(c)(3). See the full letter here.
The alleged violation took the form of a printed church bulletin, and this is what was written:
I am asking all of you to go to the polls and be united in replacing our present president with a president that will respect the Catholic Church in this country. Please pass this on to all of your Catholic friends.
I find it odd that whoever was responsible for including this language in the bulletin appears to have been at least somewhat up to speed on the applicable law. I say that because the message seems purposely vague, in that it does not come out and name any names. It appears that an attempt is being made to imply a vote for Romney without coming out and saying it directly.
However, as we know, the law also prohibits any communications or activities that have the effect of supporting or opposing a political candidate. Whether this is a message directly opposing Obama or indirectly supporting Romney, it doesn’t matter. Either one would be a violation.
This church is going to have an uphill battle with this tax problem, assuming it even has a leg to stand on. I believe the fatal error was that the statement appeared in print because (1) there is physical evidence of the violation, and (2) there is little doubt that the statement was made in some kind of official capacity on behalf of the church.