Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The tax man cometh

A Washington lawyer has filed a complaint with the IRS alleging that the Missouri Catholic Conference--the lobbying group of the state's bishops--violated laws regarding its tax-exempt status in pressuing about 50 candidates to return funds accepted from a pro-stem cell research lobbying group. The conference threatened to expose those candidates that accepted the money: "The Missouri Catholic Conference is committed to informing Missouri voters about campaign contributions promoting human cloning and embryonic stem cell research, and will report to Missouri voters regarding candidates who choose to associate themselves with this and similar organizations that promote such unethical practices.”

One of the candidates in question, Jim Guest, a Republican from northwest Missouri, was not amused, according to the New York Times: “I’m not sure if extortion is the right word, but they basically threatened me if I didn’t return the money, and that’s certainly stepping across the line.”

Now that the election season is upon us, this is going to keep coming up. Even in the Missouri Catholic Conference didn't violate the law, they're coming pretty close--and it's not just the Catholics. Under cover of being non-profit religious groups, plenty of churches are taking sides in elections (all but telling the flock for whom to vote) rather than doing the "issue education" permitted by law. It's a fine legal line that's getting crossed a lot lately, especially since it benefits the current regime.

That might be fine if religious groups were bound by the same disclosure rules other political action committees are--but they're not. And I think few Catholics especially know how their Sunday donations--which are funnelled through the parish to the diocese and on to the state and national conferences--are being used in the political process. The Illinois Catholic Conference, for example, used its muscle and money to oppose the inclusion of sexual orientation on the state's non-discrimination and human rights laws, despite the fact that religious groups are exempt.

The solution, of course, is for religious institutions to abandon the privilege of tax exemption if they want to be in the nitty-gritty of politics. That would be the more transparent thing to do, but I think it unlikely to happen any time soon.


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