Bishop Michael Sheridan's Pastoral Letter Designed To Endorse Bush And Other Republican Candidates, Watchdog Group Asserts
Americans United for Separation of Church and State today called on the Internal Revenue Service to investigate electioneering by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs, saying a recent pronouncement by Bishop Michael J. Sheridan may have crossed the line into unlawful partisan politicking.
Sheridan on May 1 issued a pastoral letter to church members in the diocesan newspaper, insisting that they not vote for candidates who support legal abortion, stem-cell research or euthanasia. Catholics who do so, he said, put their very salvation at risk.
"Bishop Sheridan's letter is code language that says, 'Re-elect Bush and vote Republican,'" charged the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "Everyone knows Bush and Kerry differ on the issue of abortion. Sheridan is using a form of religious blackmail to steer votes toward the GOP. The IRS should look into this immediately."
Speaking of efforts to curtail legal abortion, Sheridan wrote, "We cannot allow the progress that has been made to be reversed by a pro-abortion President, Senate or House of Representatives. Neither can we permit illicit stem cell research that makes use of aborted babies. Any movement to promote and legalize euthanasia must be halted. Our votes have the power to stop these abominations."
Asserting that "the very survival of our civilization will be at the top of the political agenda" this November, Sheridan wrote that any Catholic who votes for candidates who disagree with the church on abortion and related issues is disqualified to receive communion.
In a letter to IRS officials, AU asserts that Sheridan's letter is in effect a command that Catholics vote for Republicans.
"Looked at in context, I believe it is clear that this letter has a partisan political intent," wrote AU's Lynn to IRS officials. "It is designed to endorse Republican candidates who oppose legal abortion, stem-cell research and other 'life' issues. At the same time, it threatens sanctions against any church members who support Democratic candidates who disagree with the church on any of these issues."
AU says the partisan intent of the Sheridan missive is clear when viewed in light of the current political situation both nationally and in Colorado. President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry hold opposing views on legal abortion. In addition, a Colorado senate race this year will pit a pro-choice Democrat against an anti-choice Republican.
AU told the IRS that Sheridan's letter appears to run afoul of election-year guidelines issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The USCCB's Office of Governmental Affairs earlier this year warned Catholic churches that "issue advocacy communication may constitute intervention in a political campaign through the use of code words, such as 'conservative', 'liberal', 'pro-life', 'pro-choice', 'anti-choice', 'Republican', or 'Democrat', coupled with a discussion of a candidacy or election, even if no candidate is specifically named."
The IRS Code prohibits churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations from participating or intervening in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate. The IRS has interpreted the prohibition broadly and says it has zero tolerance for violations.
In 1995, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of a New York church that ran ads before the 1992 election telling people that voting for Bill Clinton was a sin because of his views on abortion, gay rights and other social issues. The church sued to get the exemption back but lost in court.
AU's Lynn noted that Sheridan's action is part of a larger trend among
some members of the Catholic hierarchy to influence Catholic voters in
this election year. In New Jersey, Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark and
Bishops Joseph Galante of Camden and John Smith of Trenton recently announced
that pro-choice Catholic politicians could not receive communion. In January,
Bishop Raymond Burke, then of Eau Claire, Wisc., ordered priests not to
give communion to pro-choice politicians.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.