June 14, 2007

Americans United for Suppressing Religious Speech

Carroll Andrew Morse

According to a Mike McKinney entry on yesterday’s 7-to-7 blog, a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State has called for an Internal Revenue Service investigation of the Diocese of Providence because of Bishop Thomas Tobin’s letter published in the Rhode Island Catholic criticizing Republican Presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani's position on the issue of abortion. From the Americans United press release

The Internal Revenue Service should investigate the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, R.I., for opposing Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a June 13 complaint to the IRS, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, writing in the diocesan newspaper, Rhode Island Catholic, appears to have violated federal tax law by attacking Giuliani and stating that he “would never support a candidate who supports legalized abortion”....

Americans United’s letter to the IRS noted that federal tax law forbids non-profits to use organizational resources to support or oppose candidates for public office. In a revenue ruling scheduled for issuance June 18, for example, the IRS states that leaders of non-profits endanger their organization’s tax-exempt status by making “partisan comments in official organization publications"....

The rather casual assumption that publishing a newspaper equals partisan political activity raises a number of significant questions…
  1. If the form of Bishop Tobin’s missive had been a Projo op-ed instead of a Rhode Island Catholic op-ed, would the organization still believe an IRS investigation was necessary, or does Americans United take the position that religious newspapers are second-class media organizations with fewer rights than secular newspapers?
  2. The Belo Corporation, though not a non-profit, is also not a political action committee, and therefore not allowed to use organizational resources to support or oppose political candidates. Does this mean that Americans United also believes that mentions of political candidates on the editorial pages of Belo newspapers (such as the Providence Journal) should be treated as partisan political activity, or, does AU believe, again, that religious organizations have fewer rights than non-religious organizations to express themselves through the free press?
  3. One of the most controversial provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform package is the ban on any organization, save for certain types of PACs, from engaging in political advertising that mentions the names of political candidates 60 days or less before an election. Since Americans United for Separation of Church and State believes that the publishing of a religious newspaper should be treated as political activity subject to campaign finance laws, do they also believe that Diocesan Newspapers should be banned from making any mention of political candidates' names in the 60 days before an election? Or do they believe that getting some form of prior government approval of the content of their newspaper before publishing would be enough to satisfy the law?
Finally, let me offer a crass political note to Mayor Giuliani and his supporters: There is a potential mini-sister Souljah moment forming here, if Mayor Giuliani takes a stand against Americans United for Separation of Church and State's pro-censorship position towards religious organizations, even as he continues to disagree with the content of the speech that AU would like to suppress.

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Carroll --

Your final point is one that Giuliani should seriously consider.

Posted by: brassband at June 14, 2007 2:15 PM

If Bishop Tobin wants to sell his moral authority and become a political whore like Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, Sharpton, Jackson, etc., who are we (and the law) to stop him?

Posted by: Rhody at June 14, 2007 7:17 PM

Americans United is also registered as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization with the IRS and thus also barred from endorsing or opposing candidates. So does AU's own criticisms of politicians, which can be found on its Web site and journal, Church and State, qualify as political campaigning, etc.?

Maybe the IRS should investigate AU to see if it ever violated any laws.

It would be preferable if everyone respected one another's rights to free speech, press, and the free exercise of religion. But since AU is seeking to censor Bishop Tobin (and discourage bishops from publicly criticizing pro-choice Catholic politicians), then it should be held to the same standard.

Posted by: D------ at June 18, 2007 3:35 PM
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