The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the IRS to investigate a video rant by a Catholic priest insisting “You cannot be Catholic and a Democrat” and threatening Catholic Democrats with “the fires of hell.” FFRF’s complaint also asks the IRS to look into unlawful partisan politicking by a Catholic bishop who endorsed the political screed as part of his official duties.
Father James Altman, pastor of St. James the Less Church in La Crosse, Wis., posted a 10-minute video calling a priest who participated in the Democratic National Convention a “hyper, confusing spreading heretic.”
In the video put up on Aug. 30, Altman says: “Here is a memo to clueless baptized Catholics out there: You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period. The party platform is absolutely against everything the Catholic Church teaches, so just quit pretending that you’re Catholic and vote Democrat. Repent of your support of that party and its platform or race the fires of hell.”
Altman also condemned “godless politicians,” and said he’s justified in commenting on political issues if lawmakers act in an “immoral way.” The screed refers to “aborted babies” who would bar the entrance to heaven for Democrats.
Bishop Joseph Strickland tweeted his endorsement of Altman’s statement on Sept. 5: “My shame is that it has taken me so long. Thank You Fr. Altman for your COURAGE. If you love Jesus & His Church & this nation . . . please HEED THIS Message.” The tweet shared Altman’s political video.
In a letter of complaint to the IRS on Sept. 10, FFRF reported the incident, noting that when Strickland retweeted the political video with an endorsing comment, he used his official bishopric Twitter account, @Bishopoftyler.
“IRS regulations specify that 501(c)(3) organization, which include churches and other religious organizations, are prohibited from ‘participating in or intervening in . . . any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office,” notes FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler.
Additionally, FFRF is asking the IRS to investigate the video, which appears to show Altman preaching from his La Crosse church, affiliated with the Diocese of La Crosse, and has professional production values.
Vatican consultant Father James J. Martin, the subject of Altman’s attack, responded by saying, “It is not a sin to vote for either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump. Nor is it a sin to be Democrat or Republican.” Martin told Newsweek: “Bishops, priests and members of religious orders are not supposed to endorse any candidates.”
“There is no such thing as ‘sin,’ but there certainly is such a thing as violating IRS regulations,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Those regulations protect the public from subsidizing political speech by tax-exempt entities.” She adds: “It is despicable spiritual blackmail to tell parishioners they’ll go to hell if they don’t vote the way their priest or bishop wants them to.”
Altman’s rant is largely directed at church compliance with the IRS provision that ensures (c)(3) organizations do not abuse their public trust by utilizing tax-exempt resources to influence elections. Although the Diocese of La Crosse has condemned the message by the local priest as inappropriate, it’s already been viewed more than 300,000 times. Gaylor said the IRS needs to investigate diocescan ties, including who paid for the video.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.