Watchdog Pursues Electioneering Violations by Priest, Catholic Group in Colorado

FFRF Urges FEC to Investigate

The national Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a formal Complaint with the Federal Election Commission “seeking an immediate investigation and enforcement action against Informed Catholic Citizens (ICC)” over an election violation in Colorado.

The Foundation had alerted media previously to a recorded robo-call message, in which a priest, identifying himself as a pastor with a Colorado Springs parish and working with ICC, basically exhorted citizens to vote “pro-life” for John McCain:

“This is Father Bill Carmody, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Colorado Springs. I’m calling on behalf of Informed Catholic Citizens, about the importance of your vote in the election. Regardless of the spinning that some politicians have done, the Catholic Church’s opposition to the evil of abortion has always been the same and is crystal clear. Why is it important in the election? John McCain has a record of supporting life. But in the words of Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, Barack Obama is the most committed abortion rights presidential candidate of either major party in 35 years. And the Democratic Party platform adopted in Denver is clearly antilife. There are many important issues to consider. But as Archbishop Chaput says, Every other human right depends on the right to life. If you have not already voted, I pray you will search your conscience carefully and consider all the information you deem important and then vote like life depended on it. Because it does. This  message is paid for by Informed Catholic Citizens.”

The complaint, written by Foundation staff attorney Rebecca S. Kratz, notes that ICC also sent out improper, statewide recorded calls targeting Democratic Senate candidate Mark Udall. ICC is a 501(c)4 lobbying group headed by former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez. Its avowed purpose is to “assist you in finding the truth about the candidates and information necessary to make an educated choice consistent with Catholic doctrine.”

The Foundation complaint notes that the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) prohibits corporations, including lobbying groups, from making any contribution or expenditure in connection with any federal election, and which “expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.” FEC regulations define express advocacy as a communication that, among other things, uses phrases such as ” ‘Vote Pro-Life’ or ‘Vote Pro-Choice’ accompanied by a listing of clearly identified candidates described as Pro-Life or Pro-Choice.” Prohibited “express advocacy” includes that which a reasonable person would interpret as advocating the election or defeat of one or more clearly identified candidate.

Kratz noted that ICC engaged in express advocacy, because Father Carmody, on ICC’s behalf, clearly identified the federal candidates and delineated their positions on abortion, saying McCain has a “record of supporting life,” and Obama “is the most committed abortion rights presidential candidate of either major party in 35 years.” Carmody asked voters, in effect, to vote “pro-life.”

The calls were made within a week of the Nov. 4 election by a new lobbying group whose only major undertakings appear to be the robo-calls to Colorado citizens concerning two federal races, “suggesting that the organization’s primary purpose is to promote political ideas,” Kratz wrote.

Lobbying groups spending more than $250 on an independent political expenditure have an obligation to report to the FEC. Any such group spending $1,000 or more within 20 days of an election on such calls is required to report the independent expenditure within 24 hours.

“As of the date of this complaint, ICC has neither registered with the FEC nor has it reported any independent expenditures made during the 2008 campaign,” Kratz noted in her Nov. 7 complaint. Federal law also requires groups whose major purpose is to influence elections, and which spend $1,000 in expenditures, to register as federal political committees.

The Foundation “requests an immediate FEC investigation” into whether ICC violated federal law pertaining to electioneering and “to take appropriate action.”

The Foundation has also pursued a formal complaint with the IRS, which governs both 501(c)3 groups such as churches, and 501(c)4 groups, such as lobbying groups. In a separate letter to the IRS, Kratz called the robo-calls “political activity” as defined by the IRS. The IRS considers whether the activity clearly identifies one of more candidates for public office, is made close to an election, raises an issue that distinguishes the candidates, and is not part of an ongoing issue advocacy campaign.”

Since a reasonable observer would “believe the organization’s primary purpose is political and not social welfare,” Kratz, on behalf of the Foundation, requested an “immediate IRS investigation to determine whether ICC violated its tax-exempt status.”

“Furthermore, FFRF believes that Father Bill Carmody crossed the line into inappropriate political activity when he identified himself as a priest from Holy Family Parish in Colorado Springs, and when he used Denver Archbishop Chaput’s name in the recorded message for ICC,” giving no disclaimer.

“The ICC robo-calls appeared to be a subterfuge for the Catholic Church hierarchy to electioneer,” noted Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.

“We have never seen such an outcry by the public over the mix of church and electioneering, including from members of the Catholic Church who have felt their pastors and Catholic hierarchy have tried to intimidate them over the election and referenda. It’s time for the IRS to take action against out-of-control electioneering from the pulpit,” Gaylor added.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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