Frances Kissling is is the president of Catholics for a Free Choice.
Earlier this month, on September 11 to be exact, the IRS announced that it had revoked the nonprofit 501(c)(3) status of Youth Ministries, Inc., which did business as the vehemently antichoice Operation Rescue West (ORW). While the IRS does not provide information on the circumstances that lead to revocations of any group's tax-exempt status, a complaint filed by my organization, Catholics for a Free Choice in 2004 provided information on ORW's electoral activities during the Boston Democratic Party convention that we considered to be violations of IRS regulations.
Our complaint referred to a full-page ad placed by the antichoice group on July 15, 2004, in the Wanderer, an ultraconservative national Catholic weekly. In the ad, ORW called on readers to make what it said was a "tax-deductible donation to help pay the bills and affect the outcome of the election" and called for readers to give a tax-deductible donation to help "defeat [John Kerry] in November and enable President Bush to appoint a pro-life Supreme Court Justice to finally overturn Roe v. Wade." In making its case, Operation Rescue West cited the statements of several cardinals and bishops who had attacked Catholic politicians for their support of a woman's right to choose and invited the support of readers as they are "going into the middle of a war in Boston." [Emphasis in original.] ORW said that the money raised would be spent in Boston during the Democratic Party convention, where it planned to distribute antiabortion, anti-Kerry materials and display highly visible ads on trucks at key sites.
This egregious violation of US tax laws was perhaps the most visible and vicious by various tax-exempt organizations opposed to abortion rights and, by extension, candidates who support these rights during the 2004 election season.
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The lawyer we worked with on the complaint, John Pomeranz of Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg, LLP, noted that "the Political Activity Compliance Initiative that the IRS ran in 2004 led to the revocation of 501(c)(3) status for only a handful of the organizations audited. It is a mark of how flagrantly and egregiously ORW violated the law that its tax-exempt status has been revoked."
The IRS's vigilance in monitoring election activities by 501(c)(3) organizations is to be applauded and we hope the revocation of Operation Rescue West's tax-exempt status will send a clear message to tax-exempt groups that think they are above the law that such activities will be monitored, reported to the IRS and acted upon. As we enter the 2006 campaign season, we are already seeing substantial violations of the regulations from groups such as Priests for Life which seems to believe it need not comply with our election laws.
Antichoice religious groups violating tax laws are well aware of the scrutiny they are under and some are attempting to get around the restrictions. Only this year, Catholic Answers, another vehemently antichoice organization, announced that it was being investigated and had set up Catholic Answers Action–a 501(c)(4) organization–as a direct result of a complaint filed in 2004 by CFFC. In a statement on its Web site, Catholic Answers noted, "We were forced to start [Catholic Answers Action] because of a complaint filed against Catholic Answers by Frances Kissling, president of the misnamed Catholics for a Free Choice…. For more than a year her complaint has been winding its way through the IRS, which has been sending us loads of interrogatories to answer. We were forced to hire a top-flight pro-life law firm to represent Catholic Answers and to protect our interests." We believe that the Catholic Answers solution is flawed and we are filing another complaint against the 501(c)(4) group it established.
Clearly reporting these violations works and so far this year CFFC has filed two complaints against Priests for Life for similar violations. In an electioneering communication to Priests for Life supporters, Fr. Frank Pavone, national director of the Catholic-right antichoice organization, stated, "We will repeat and intensify this year all we did in the previous election cycles. The pro-abortion groups, the liberals in the Church, the over-cautious attorneys, and the people who don't want to see the Church ‘influencing elections' can yell and scream all they want. In fact, I invite them to. It won't make a shred of difference. We will move forward with more boldness than ever before." Click here to read our latest report on Priests for Life.
We all know and understand that charitable status is a privilege, not a right. Nonprofit organizations are free to educate members and the public, but must do so within the limits of charitable laws. Organizations even have the right to participate in the election process if they choose to renounce their charitable status. What they are not free to do is flout the federal statutes and IRS regulations that govern all charities by endorsing or targeting candidates during an election year. CFFC will continue to monitor any and all election-related activities by Catholic nonprofits and report violations to the IRS.
Editor's note: It really says something about ORW that their response to losing tax-exempt status was equivalent to a shrug of their shoulders. From the NY Times: “We have reorganized as simply Operation Rescue,” said Cheryl Sullenger, the group’s outreach coordinator. “Losing our tax exemption doesn’t have much of an effect on us, one way or the other. We have learned some lessons through this whole thing, and I think we’re in a better place now than we were before the I.R.S. investigation.”