Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Another Day, Another Church Violates Political Activity Rules

On Sunday, September 2, the Church of St. Catherine of Siena, in NYC, published and circulated to parishioners a church bulletin containing a column by the Rev. John Farren, a member of the congregation’s pastoral staff.  The column, which is ostensibly about religious freedom, reproduced in full a letter from several former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican criticizing the Obama administration and concluding, “We urge our fellow Catholics, and indeed all people of good will, to join with us in this full-hearted effort to elect Governor Mitt Romney as the next President of the United States.” (Note that this is a quote from the ambassadors' letter, reproduced in full in Fr. Farren's column, not a quote from Fr. Farren himself).  The reproduced letter, in fact, mentions Romney specifically a half-dozen times, and in each paragraph other than the very first.

Father Farren perhaps thought he had protected himself from violating the political campaign prohibition rules by framing his column as one about religious freedom, and including the following sentence: "I am aware that I and no church authority may endorse candidates for political office, but because that letter focuses on the centrality of religious freedom, I believe it is worth reproducing here." Or perhaps he thought that reproducing someone else's endorsement of Romney in an official church publication was OK as long as the endorsement words didn't come out of his mouth.  Either way, he was dead wrong.

Aside from the fact that Father Farren's statement is pretty transparently a ploy to signal his approval of Governor Romney (he could easily have made his arguments regarding religious freedom without reproducing a letter that is essentially a campaign ad for Romney), the statement in the church bulletin quite clearly violates the rules the IRS laid out in Rev. Rul. 2007-41.  I cited these rules in my previous post about Bishop Jenky of Peoria, but here they are again.  In assessing whether a communication that is ostensibly about an "issue" rather than a political endorsement, the IRS considers the following factors: 

  1. Whether the statement identifies one or more candidates for a given public office;                
  2. Whether the statement expresses approval or disapproval for one or more candidates’ positions and/or actions;                    

  3. Whether the statement is delivered close in time to the election;

  4. Whether the statement makes reference to voting or an election;

  5. Whether the issue addressed in the communication has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office;                    

  6. Whether the communication is part of an ongoing series of communications by the organization on the same issue that are made independent of the timing of any election; and                    

  7. Whether the timing of the communication and identification of the candidate are related to a non-electoral event such as a scheduled vote on specific legislation by an officeholder who also happens to be a candidate for public office.

My analysis is that Fr. Farren's column in the church bulletin managed to violate all seven of these criteria; a perfect (negative) score.  To analogize to speeding, this isn't going 75 mph in a 65 zone; this is going 120.  The fact that the rules were (mostly) broken in the context of reproducing a letter from outsiders is irrelevant; this is similar to a web link that would take you to a web page with the original endorsement.   The Revenue Ruling is quite clear that one is responsible for the content behind such links in this context - in other words, you can't escape the rules by re-publishing someone else's endorsement.  Link to it, or re-publish it approvingly, and it becomes your own.

As I indicated in my prior post about Bishop Jenky, it's high time the IRS made a stand on the political activity rules.  Either enforce your ruling, or withdraw it and give up.  




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Very interesting. This probably happens way too often in churches (across denominations) throughout the country: in support of Democrats and Republicans.

Posted by: Peter Rinn | Sep 12, 2012 7:21:28 AM

I have wondered for years when candidates - especially in traditionally black churches - were introduced to the congregation in the pulpit by the Pastor and spoke to the congregation (and televised "to boot") why this activity was not acted upon. I also found quite interesting that Atty. Gen. Holder held educational conferences this year to educate on the permitted and prohibited use of churches for political endorsement.

I echo Peter's comment. It does happen in churches, across denominations, throughout the country. Either we enforce the prohibition or we dont. Not selectively.

Posted by: Tom Norris | Sep 14, 2012 6:49:38 AM

Just a note that having a candidate speak at an event hosted by an exempt charity (e.g., a church) is not necessarily a violation of political activity rules. Read Rev. Rul. 2007-41 for an extensive discussion of the rules regarding candidates speaking "as candidates" vs. speaking as non-candidates. Nevertheless, I agree that violations of the political activity rules cross political lines and denominations. It just so happens that two of the most glaring incidents during the current cycle have involved the Catholic Church and support for Governor Romney.


Posted by: John Colombo | Sep 14, 2012 7:45:44 AM

IRS rules for nonprofits apply equally to religious and nonreligious ones. Quite a number of atheist and pro-secular groups such as American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Secular Coalition for America, Center for Reproductive Rights, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, GLAAD, the NAACP, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America are also registered as 501 c 3 nonprofits. They can't do politics either. To what extent are they being policed?

I would add that there also many magazines that you will find in a major bookstore and your library shelves that also can't make endorsements because they are published by 501 c (3) nonprofits: Commentary, Commonweal (which ran an article last August by Jeff Madrick endorsing Obama), the Humanist, Free Inquiry, American Atheist, Dissent, the Freeman, Mother Jones, First Things, Ms., Reason, Conscience (by Catholics for Choice), and Church and State (Americans United for the Separation of Church and State). Would you warn them not to have too many articles about a political candidate or a party platform around election time?

IRS guidelines should be enforced equally. The fact that the "separation of nonprofits and politics" doesn't trip off the tongue and invoke a familiar concept like "the separation of church and state" is no excuse for selective enforcement.

Dimitri Cavalli
Bronx, NY

Posted by: Dimitri Cavalli | Oct 2, 2012 4:27:04 PM

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