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Three's a Crowd: Republicans, Democrats and the Catholic Church

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Have no doubt that the Catholic Church has dropped all pretense of being a religious organization. Cathedrals are nothing but a gathering place for constituents to organize lobbying campaigns, support favored candidates and influence state and federal legislation. The Catholic Church is now officially the third major political party in the United States.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the health care debate. Religious leaders of the Catholic Church boldly ask parishioners to help kill any health care reform that does not exclude abortion. The bully pulpit has become simply the pulpit. Toward the goal of rewriting health care legislation, the Church has exceeded the limits of lobbying to become permanent staff in all but name to influential Congressmen. Bart Stupak, a representative from Michigan, proudly states that Catholic bishops worked closely with him to help him and Joe Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania, draft an amendment proposing tight restrictions that prevent any insurance plan purchased with government subsidies from covering abortion. Lisa Miller of Newsweek reports in the March 15 issue that Stupak told her that the "bishops were very, very, very engaged" in framing the amendment. He went on to say that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops "was working with my staff" and that "we had to coordinate forces" with the bishops and that he told the bishops, "I'm not moving forward until you know what I'm doing." The bishops went further, working with Stupak to monitor the position of individual representatives to get a vote count in support of the amendment based on Stupak's interactions with his colleagues.

The Bishops used health care reform as a vehicle to exercise the most blatant political influence to enact the greatest restrictions on reproductive choice in generations, relegating the Hyde Amendment to a class of minor nuisance. We now have the Church ghost-writing federal laws undermining decades of established practice.

Be clear that by statute tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations like churches are subject to limits or complete prohibitions on engaging in political activities. Tax exempt status is clearly jeopardized whenever a church openly speaks out against or organizes opposition to anything legal, even if the church believes the law to be immoral. The actual language from the IRS (emphasis is mine) is: "Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes." The Catholic Church is the poster boy for such violations; some examples:

During the 2004 presidential campaign, candidate John Kerry was excommunicated from the Church. If confusing news stories at the time sow doubt about this fact, consider that in February of that year St. Louis archbishop Raymond Burke forbade Kerry from taking communion when he was campaigning in the area. This action is clearly a public statement of position made on behalf of the Church in opposition to a candidate because of that candidate's views on abortion.

In 2006 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that (emphasis mine): "We need to do more to persuade all people that human life is precious and human dignity must be defended. This requires more effective dialogue and engagement with all public officials, especially Catholic public officials. We welcome conversation initiated by political leaders themselves."

Bishop William F. Murphy sent a letter dated July 17, 2009, to all members of the Congress "on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)" to "outline our policy priorities." He did not outline his religious convictions, or offer his prayers for a favorable outcome, but instead laid out his policy priorities.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in February 2009, he stated that he (emphasis mine) "enjoins all Catholics, and especially legislators, jurists and those responsible for the common good of society, to work in cooperation with all men of goodwill in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development."

In March of last year, Archbishop Burke warned that President Barack Obama "could be an agent of death" because of his support for reproductive choice. That is certainly a public statement of position made on behalf of the Church against a politician. He is not alone. Jay Scott Newman, a Catholic priest in South Carolina, told his congregation that voting for Obama would constitute a mortal sin.

The list goes on.

Like any American citizen, bishops have every right to express their views fully and openly. Freedom of expression is essential to the American way of life, and this should be defended at all costs. But with freedom of speech comes responsibility, and here the Church fails to meet minimum standards of good citizenship. Catholic bishops wish to influence our political agenda while enjoying all the benefits of non-political organizations. They want to have the best of both worlds, creating legislation through Immaculate Conception using a process immune to scrutiny. Bishops want to stand before their congregation in a cathedral that pays no property tax as a religious institution to influence secular law and explicitly support candidates acceptable to the Church.

I strongly encourage bishops to speak their minds, and to work in broad daylight to influence legislation consistent with their beliefs. But if bishops and other religious leaders wish to exercise their right to free speech to push a specific political agenda, the Catholic Church should no longer be considered a religious organization. The Church is, rather, just another special interest group that should register as lobbyists or run candidates for office. In pursuit of a clear political agenda, the Church should no longer be eligible for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3). Nothing in the Constitution requires that churches get a tax exemption; such status is a privilege offered by legislation. The special status is recent, bestowed upon churches for the first time in 1954. And when that privilege of tax exemption is abused, the privilege can be rescinded.

Given the visible role that activist bishops played in helping Stupak and Pitts fight the freedom of choice, nobody can deny that the Catholic Church has had a direct hand in influencing one the most important pieces of legislation to be debated in Congress. This is a blatant violation of the privileges accorded to 501(c)(3) organizations and a terrible assault on separating church and state. Nobody can claim with a straight face that such church activity complies with either the spirit or the letter of the codes allowing for exemption status, or that such actions are compatible with the First Amendment. The Catholic Church must decide: religious organization or political party. It cannot be both. Unless we value Iran as a role model for governance.

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