Clearing Up Some Separation of Church and State Confusion
Between the support of Proposition 8 by the Latter Day Saints and the comments coming out of the Roman Catholic church on abortion, like the story of SC priest, some are calling for stripping these two groups of their 501(c)3 tax exempt status for getting involved in politics. Most of the arguments, however, misunderstand the tax law in some very basic ways.
A post by Be_Devine at Calitics, speaking about the Prop 8 stuff, noted that the Humane Society is the same kind of 501(c)3 organization as the LDS, and no one seems to have a problem with the HS putting a bunch of money into an animal rights proposition on the CA ballot:
. . . let’s take this legal argument to its logical conclusion. The Humane Society of America is a tax-exempt organization under the same tax code section, 501(c)(3), as the Mormon church. In the eyes of the IRS, the Humane Society and the Mormon church are the same. The Humane Society was the critical force behing [sic] getting Prop 2 (treatment of farm animals) passed. It donated $3.7 million, helped get the proposition on the ballot, and carried the torch in getting it passed. Should the IRS strip the Humane Society of its tax-exempt status for advocating Prop 2? Of course it should not.
I disagree with Father Newman in SC on a lot of things, but his letter* doesn’t cross the Church-State line. He said in essence "Look, here’s what we Catholics believe, and if you don’t, then you shouldn’t come to communion until you re-think and repent of your beliefs." [Oops! see note below.]
Father Newman is commenting on the election, after the fact, not trying to influence the election beforehand. He also is careful to cast all of this as an issue statement, not an of endorsement or condemnation of a candidate or party — which is THE big deal as far as the IRS goes. (It’s akin to the secular campaign finance law distinction between issue-advertising and candidate advertising.) The fact that he also called for cooperation with Obama on other matters, and prayed a very open and non-partisan prayer for the president-elect also makes it clear that this letter is about abortion, not about candidates or political parties. In short, this is a very different situation than the fundies who came out ahead of the election, endorsed McCain by name, and dared the IRS to come after them.
*Note: Father Newman’s letter has been removed from the parish website, presumably at the direction of his bishop. (The link above is to the Google cache.) Those who visit the parish website to see the letter are directed to a statement on the diocesan website (pdf and video) where Father Newman’s interpretation of RC doctrine is corrected: "Christ gives us freedom to explore our own conscience and to make our own decisions while adhering to the law of God and the teachings of the faith. Therefore, if a person has formed his or her conscience well, he or she should not be denied Communion, nor be told to go to confession before receiving Communion." You’ve got to get these things right, Father, if you’re going to withhold communion.
The law for 501(c)3 non-profits — both religious and secular — is clear that issue advocacy and education is fine while candidate endorsement is prohibited. This is issue advocacy/education, and thus protected. I think it is offensive, wrong-headed, and problematic on many theological and political grounds, but constitutionally protected nonetheless.
Disclosure: I am not a lawyer, but a pastor. Some might say I have a vested interest and am therefore biased, but I would contend that this means I have lots of experience in the subject.