WASHINGTON – An activist group called Priests for Life on Wednesday urged Catholic parishes to expand their efforts to educate and mobilize voters in the 2016 election campaign, saying that too often some churches have censored themselves.
“This is not about the church becoming a political machine,” said Priests for Life National Director, the Rev. Frank Pavone. “This is about the church becoming more the church.”
The organization, a national anti-abortion group, hosted the news conference following the release of Pavone’s book, “Abolishing Abortion,” which maintains that Christian organizations have more rights in electoral politics than some of their leaders think.
Although federal law bars tax-exempt religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church from intervening in political campaigns, Pavone said that churches need to have a better understanding of which actions actually violate the law. Because abortion and related issues have become a part of many political campaigns, pastors have a stake in discussing these topics with their parishioners and clarifying the church’s position, he said.
Priests for Life Executive Director Janet Morana said that, among other initiatives, her organization plans on offering voter guides on its website that churches can distribute to parish members.
A handful of speakers took the stage to explain the legal obstacles that the church faces in engaging in electoral politics.
Attorney Christiana Holcomb, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, said the group, which has represented Priests for Life, is drafting legislative language for a “legislative fix” that could help the church get involved in partisan politics. She said that a key provision in the tax code, the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations such as the church from endorsing political candidates, violates the First Amendment and would be ruled unconstitutional if taken to court.
Attorney James Bopp Jr., a specialist in First Amendment law who represented the plaintiffs in the Citizens United campaign finance case, said that the law is unclear on what constitutes intervention. Because churches fear backlash from the Internal Revenue Service, they tread on the side of being over-cautious, he said.
American Catholics, however, might not be on board with the church jumping into electoral politics, said Catholics for Choice President Jon O’Brien. No more than one in five American priests has ever been affiliated with the anti-abortion organization, Priests for Life, according to a 2006 report issued by the CFC, a pro-abortion rights group.
O’Brien also said that critics have raised concerns about the organization’s finances and lack of oversight. Their current initiative and past involvement in partisan politics does not mesh with their nonprofit status, he said.
“We all have a right to free speech,” he said. “But when you go around abusing the rules of nonprofits and stretching the IRS conditions that we enjoy nonprofit status on, that should be brought into question.”