* Tax status saved churches $145 billion over 10 years

* Complaints filed to U.S. Internal Revenue Service

* IRS received complaints in 2008 election also

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Political watchdog and secularist groups are asking the U.S. government to investigate whether Catholic bishops and a Christian evangelical group headed by preacher Billy Graham should lose tax breaks for telling followers how to vote in this year's election.

Under constitutional protections of free speech and separation of church and state, churches are free to speak on any issue. But they risk losing tax breaks worth $145 billion in the past decade if they violate Internal Revenue Service rules by promoting or opposing any particular candidate. Other non-profits also have special tax status.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a political watchdog group, in its complaint to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, cited reports of individual bishops "abusing their positions to advocate against the election of President Barack Obama."

The group's executive director, Melanie Sloan, said some bishops went too far by saying a vote for Democrats would mean going to hell. "I don't think the Catholic bishops should be intimidating parishioners to advocate for any particular candidate," said Sloan.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation complained to the IRS about possible illegal political campaign intervention by Wisconsin Catholic bishops and the Charlotte, North Carolina-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

IRS spokesman Dean Patterson declined to comment on the complaints or on whether there was any investigation. "Federal law prohibits the IRS from discussing specific taxpayers or situations," Patterson said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, through its spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said it would not comment on what a bishop says in his diocese.

The Billy Graham group said that its newspaper ads in publications like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today advocated votes for candidates who support "biblical values" but mentioned no candidate or party.

The ads, signed by Graham, asked voters to back candidates who support "the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman" and who protect "the sanctity of life," an apparent reference to the group's opposition to abortion.

The conference of bishops waged a campaign this year against the Obama administration's health care requirement birth control be covered by health insurance.

Church doctrine is opposed to contraception as a means of birth control. Church leaders also spoke out against same-sex marriage but were on the losing side in four states where the issue was on the ballot.


THE POWER OF THE PULPIT

Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University who worked for the Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh, said some bishops seemed particularly politically active in this election.

In Cafardi's opinion, the bishops' conference did not cross any tax-law lines but some individual bishops may have done so.

"The larger issue is that, irrespective of what the tax code says, churches should be sacred spaces, free of partisan politics," said Cafardi.

Among those whose political positions created controversy in this campaign season was Springfield, Illinois, Bishop Thomas Paprocki who warned his flock in a letter of "intrinsic evils" in the Democratic platform's support of abortion and same-sex marriage. A vote for someone who promotes such actions "places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy," he said.

Peter Breen, executive director of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a law firm focused on Catholic issues, said the complaint against Catholic bishops was meant to frighten people of faith from challenging their political leaders, which religious people have always been called to do.

"That's not electioneering - it's merely making statements about public concern," said Breen of Paprocki's statement. "He's not saying vote for Candidate A as opposed to Candidate B."

Green Bay, Wisconsin, Bishop David Ricken made a statement similar to Paprocki's in an Oct. 24 letter to parishioners, but later said his comments "should not be misunderstood as an endorsement of any political candidates or parties."

In an April sermon, Peoria, Illinois, Bishop Daniel Jenky said Obama, with his "radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path" to that of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and German dictator Adolf Hitler. The homily is posted on the diocese newspaper's web site.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged the IRS in October to investigate a Texas church that advised on its marquee to "Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim!" - a reference to Mormon Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Obama, who is not a Muslim.

Conservatives were not the only ones getting support from the pulpit. According to an October Pew Research Center report, 40 percent of Black Protestants reported hearing about presidential candidates from clergy at church, and the messages overwhelmingly favored Obama.

Americans United also complained in the 2008 election about a North Carolina Baptist group that invited Michelle Obama to speak at an event that they said appeared to be a campaign rally.

The Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the IRS needs to start vigorously enforcing restrictions against political speech by churches.

"This is extraordinarily important - one of the few remaining restrictions on campaign spending," said Lynn. He warned that if churches are allowed to say anything they want politically and keep their tax benefits, "this would be a gigantic new loophole and would not serve the church's interest, or the public's." (Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Nanette Byrnes; Editing by Greg McCune and Jackie Frank)

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • 2012 -- Barack Obama

    U.S. President Barack Obama waves to supporters following his victory speech on election night in Chicago, Illinois on November 6, 2012. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2008 -- Barack Obama

    Nov. 4, 2008: U.S. president-elect Barack Obama waves at his supporters during his election night victory rally at Grant Park in Chicago. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2004 -- George W. Bush

    In this Nov. 3, 2004 file photo, President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush salute and wave during an election victory rally at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

  • 2000 -- George W. Bush

    U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush casts his vote in Austin, Texas on November 7, 2000. (PAUL RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1996 -- Bill Clinton

    President Bill Clinton, wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea wave to supporters in front of the Old State House during an election night celebration in Little Rock, Ark. on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1996. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

  • 1992 -- Bill Clinton

    Bill Clinton and Al Gore celebrate in Little Rock, Arkansas after winning in a landslide election on November 3, 1992. (AP Photo)

  • 1988 -- George H. W. Bush

    President-elect George Bush and his family celebrate his victory on November 8,1988 at the Brown Convention Center in Houston. (WALT FRERCK/AFP/Getty Images) <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> An earlier version of this slide was titled "George W. Bush." It has been fixed.</em>

  • 1984 -- Ronald Reagan

    President Ronald Reagan gives a thumbs-up to supporters at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles as he celebrates his re-election, Nov. 6, 1984, with first lady Nancy Reagan at his side. (AP Photo/File)

  • 1980 -- Ronald Reagan

    President-elect Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy wave to well-wishers on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1980 at Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles after his election victory. (AP Photo)

  • 1976 -- Jimmy Carter

    Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter embraces his wife Rosalynn after receiving the final news of his victory in the national general election on November 2, 1976. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • 1972 -- Richard Nixon

    U.S. President Richard M. Nixon meets at Camp David, Maryland, on November 13, 1972 to discuss the Vietnam situation with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger (L) and Maj. Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr.(R), Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. (Photo by AFP PHOTO/NATIONAL ARCHIVE/Getty Images)

  • 1968 -- Richard Nixon

    President-elect Richard M. Nixon and his wife, Pat, were a picture of joy at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Nov. 6, 1968, as he thanked campaign workers. At left are David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon's fiance, Julie and her sister Tricia at center. (AP Photo)

  • 1964 -- Lyndon Johnson

    President Lyndon Johnson proves he's a pretty good cowhand as he puts his horse, Lady B, through the paces of rounding up a Hereford yearling on his LBJ Ranch near Stonewall, Texas, on November 4, 1964. (AP Photo/Bill Hudson)

  • 1960 -- John F. Kennedy

    Caroline Kennedy peeps over the shoulder of her father, Senator John F. Kennedy, as he gave her a piggy-back ride November 9, 1960 at the Kennedy residence in Hyannis Port, Mass. It was the first chance president-elect Kennedy had to relax with his daughter in weeks. (AP Photo)

  • 1956 -- Dwight D. Eisenhower

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon salute cheering workers and Republicans at GOP election headquarters in Washington, November 7, 1956, after Adlai Stevenson conceded. (AP Photo)

  • 1952 -- Dwight D. Eisenhower

    President-elect Dwight Eisenhower and first lady-elect Mamie Eisenhower wave to the cheering, singing crowd in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Commodore in New York City on Nov. 5, 1952 after Gov. Adlai Stevenson conceded defeat. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)

  • 1948 -- Harry S. Truman

    U.S. President Harry S. Truman holds up an Election Day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which, based on early results, mistakenly announced "Dewey Defeats Truman" on November 4, 1948. The president told well-wishers at St. Louis' Union Station, "That is one for the books!" (AP Photo/Byron Rollins)

  • 1944 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

    President Franklin Roosevelt greets a young admirer as he sits outside his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., on election night, November 7, 1944. Behind him stands his daughter, Mrs. Anna Roosevelt Boettinger and the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. (AP Photo)

  • 1940 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

    American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) speaking to a crowd of 25,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York on Nov. 8, 1940, before his sweeping re-election for a third term. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

  • 1936 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

    The Republican Governor of Kansas and presidential candidate, Alfred Landon (1887 - 1987) greeting the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) (seated) prior to the presidential elections. Future United States President Harry S. Truman can been seen in the background. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1932 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

    Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York at his Hyde Park, N.Y. home November 6, 1932, seen at the conclusion of the arduous months of campaigning following his presidential nomination in Chicago. (AP Photo)

  • 1928 -- Herbert Hoover

    President-elect Herbert Hoover is seated at a table with wife, Lou, and joined by other family members on Nov. 9, 1928. Standing from left: Allan Hoover; son; Margaret Hoover, with husband, Herbert Hoover, Jr.,at right. Peggy Ann Hoover, daughter of Herbert Hoover Jr., sits with her grandmother. (AP Photo)

  • 1924 -- Calvin Coolidge

    U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and first lady Grace Coolidge are shown with their dog at the White House portico in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 5, 1924. (AP Photo)

  • 1920 -- Warren Harding

    Senator Warren Harding, with wife Florence and his father George, shown on Aug. 27, 1920. (AP Photo)

  • 1916 -- Woodrow Wilson

    Surrounded by crowds, President Woodrow Wilson throws out the first ball at a baseball game in Washington in this 1916 photo. (AP Photo)

  • 1912 -- Woodrow Wilson

    Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924), the future American president, casts his vote while Governor of New Jersey, on Nov. 14, 1912. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)