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FFRF contests bishops' electioneering

In letters to the Internal Revenue Service, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has reported possible illegal political campaign intervention by Catholic bishops in Green Bay and Madison, Wis.

In a Nov. 1 letter to the IRS office in Dallas which oversees "exempt organizations classification," FFRF Senior Staff Attorney told the IRS that Diocese of Green Bay Bishop David L. Ricken wrote an article Oct. 24 titled "An Important Moment" to be inserted in all parish bulletins.

Ricken begins, "It is almost time to vote and to make our choices for president and other political offices..." Ricken lists a "set of non-negotiables" for parishioners "to keep in mind as you approach the voting booth to complete your ballot." These issues include "abortion" and "homosexual 'marriage'."

He further states, "These are areas that are 'intrinsically evil' and cannot be supported by anyone who is a believer in God...A well-informed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program that contradicts fundamental contents of faith and morals."

His letter, which was printed on the diocese letterhead, continues, "But what does this have to do with the election? Some candidates and one party have even chosen some of these as their party's or their personal political platform," and to vote for such a candidate or party "means that you could be morally 'complicit' with these choices which are intrinsically evil. This could put your own soul in jeopardy."

Ricken also warns his diocese to "keep in mind" the "aggressive moves by the government to impose the HHS mandate, especially the move to redefine religion so that religion is confined more and more to the four walls of the Church..."
IRS regulations specify that 501(c)(3) organizations, 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."

The issues identified by the bishop in the Oct. 24 article as "intrinsically evil" are generally what distinguish Republican and Democratic social platforms. In Wisconsin, these issues differentiate candidates for federal and state offices, i.e., one candidate for U.S. Senate was anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage, and the other candidate was a lesbian who supports marriage equality and abortion rights.

Ricken's article, published and distributed just two weeks before Election Day, is clearly urging people not to vote for the "one party" that embraces these "evil" positions.

Likewise, a warning that the current HHS mandate is a "dangerous precedent" is a clear reference to the policy of the incumbent candidate for president, Barack Obama. He distinctly refers to the imminent presidential election. Though he does not explicitly state, "Vote for Romney" or any other specific candidate, it is clear to the reader that Ricken is urging members of his diocese to vote against Democratic candidates.

Markert's Nov. 6 letter to the Dallas IRS makes similar points about an article Nov. 1 by Madison Bishop Robert Morlino. Titled "Official guidelines for forming a Catholic conscience in the Diocese of Madison," it was published in the diocesan newspaper.

FFRF urges the IRS to investigate circumstances that led to the churchmen's efforts to influence political races.

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School board prayer out, silence in

Another Pennsylvania school board has decided to drop prayer at board meetings after getting a letter from FFRF. That means FFRF is batting 5 for 5 in recent challenges to prayers by Keystone State school boards.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Aug. 17 on behalf of a local complainant to Glenn Yoder, president of the Eastern Lancaster County Board of School Directors in New Holland.

FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with over 18,500 members, including over 600 in Pennsylvania.

Markert noted that state and federal court have repeatedly ruled that prayers by public school boards are unconstitutional, inappropriate and divisive and cited the relevant cases. (The Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia also wrote the board to complain about its invocations.)

On the weekend of Oct. 20, Superintendent Robert Hollister left a phone message at FFRF's office that said the board would no longer be opening meetings with prayer.

According to unofficial minutes from the Sept. 17 board meeting, meetings will instead open with a moment of silence. The minutes contend there's value in "thoughtful reflection," i.e., prayer, but add "the board doesn't not wish to expose our taxpayers to threat of litigation that these outside groups have implied will occur, because our tax dollars are best spent supporting the education of our children."

The Greencastle-Antrim, Grove City, Octorara Area School Board in Atglen and Big Spring school boards also voted recently to stop praying before meetings after getting FFRF letters.

billygrahamadThe Freedom From Religion Foundation condemns as "blatant politicking" full-page ads by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which make clear whom Graham wants voters to choose for president and U.S. Senate. The ministry ran ads in Sunday's New York Times and in the Wisconsin State Journal two Sundays in a row, as well as in USA Today on Oct. 19, in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 18, and in "more than a dozen national and battleground state newspapers before Nov. 6," according to Huffington Post.

Billy Graham met with Mitt Romney in his North Carolina home on Oct. 11, where the evangelist tacitly endorsed Romney for president. According to Huffington Post, "Although the Romney campaign stopped short of calling it an endorsement, Graham made it clear at the meeting's conclusion that Romney had his support. After leading a prayer for the Republican nominee, Graham told Romney, 'I'll do all I can to help you. And you can quote me on that.' "

Two days after the meeting, the ministry announced its "vote biblical principles" campaign.

On Sunday, Oct. 21, a full-page ad ran in the Wisconsin State Journal. Graham's face dominated half of the ad, which reproduced his signature. The text attributed to Graham read:

"On November 6, the day before my 94th birthday, our nation will hold one of the most critical elections in my lifetime. We are at a crossroads and there are profound moral issues at stake. I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms. The Bible speaks clearly on these crucial issues. Please join me in praying for America, that we will turn our hearts back toward God."

The ad is clearly marked "Paid advertisement by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association," a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity. Tax exempt organizations are forbidden by the IRS to engage in partisan politicking, which includes actions making clear whom tax-exempt entities want people to vote for or against.

"It was not necessary for Billy Graham to name names. One presidential candidate has come out in favor of marriage equality for gays and is pro-choice. The other rejects gay marriage and is antiabortion. Ditto for Wisconsin's heated U.S. Senate race, between one candidate who is antiabortion and anti-gay marriage, and the other candidate who is a lesbian who supports marriage equality and abortion rights," noted Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President.

"This is dirty pool," she added, because taxpayers are subsidizing these ads by virtue of the fact that donations to the Graham ministry are tax-deductible, making it an "unfair political battle."

A similar full-page ad ran again in yesterday's State Journal, as well as the New York Times. The ad featured a photo of the evangelist's face taking up two-thirds of the page, and this statement by him:

"The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren, and this great nation is crucial. As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God."

Tax-exempt organizations may engage in voter registration drives. These ads by the Graham ministry, which reported $122 million in net assets for the year 2011, go far beyond that, FFRF contends.

The "coded" message continues at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website, where a majority of banner ads and highlighted links on the homepage work together to send an endorsement message for Romney. These include:

1. A banner ad saying "Vote Biblical Values on November 6. Important Message from Billy Graham" (with his photo) taking readers to copies of the ads the ministry is running around the country.

2. A banner ad saying "Billy Graham Welcomes Mitt Romney," featuring a photo of Romney and Graham, linking to more photos and a press release saying: "It was a privilege to pray with Gov. Romney—for his family and our country." The press release features the same language as the current ads, urging readers "to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms."

3. A banner ad saying "Can an Evangelical Vote for a Mormon? Franklin Graham Provides an Answer," linking to a statement by the junior Graham dated Oct. 22, 2012, which concludes: "So, can a Christian vote for a Mormon? The answer is yes."

"These coded messages overall create a clear message of endorsement of a presidential candidate, even picturing Romney with the head of the ministry," said Gaylor.

After Billy Graham's Oct. 21 meeting with Romney, references to Mormonism as a "cult" were "scrubbed" from the ministry's website, according to Religion News Service.

FFRF received many complaints from its North Carolina members and members of the public after Graham was featured in ministry ads supporting the North Carolina referendum to ban gay marriage, which passed this summer. FFRF found no evidence that the ministry had registered with state election officials in North Carolina.

"The Billy Graham Evangelical Association is abusing its tax-exempt status," said Gaylor. FFRF will pursue complaints with appropriate agencies. Read letter to Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.

The Haralson County (Tallapoosa, Ga.) football team will no longer call upon a "team chaplain" to provide religious support, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. Schmitt wrote Haralson County School District Superintendent Brett Stanton on Sept. 19, 2011.

"A public high school football team should not employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain." Prior to FFRF's intervention, a local pastor issued sectarian prayers over the loudspeaker before home football games. Schmitt pointed out that it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead prayers before public high school athletic events. Appointing a team chaplain was in direct violation of the Constitution.

The school district's legal counsel sent a letter of reply on Feb. 28: "We are confident that any of the situations that gave rise to your concern have been addressed and will not give rise to any concerns during next year's football season or otherwise." 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has stopped a City of Portage (Wis.) Police Chief from using his public position as a religious soap box.

The Police Chief used his employee email to distribute religious materials to his employees. He also sent employees bible verses, bibles and other devotional material. One such article was titled "Strength for Service to God and Country." And another "The Connection between Spirituality and Policing." In a Jan. 9 letter to the city administrator, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote: "It is grossly inappropriate for any government employee, especially the Chief of Police, to distribute religious messages to government employees."

Adding to the Chief's repertoire of egregious state/church abuses was the posting of religious messages in the Police Department lobby and his attendance at a bible study while on duty. He also opened a mandatory employee meeting with a Christian prayer. Under his direction employee "swearing in" ceremonies often included mention of "Jesus." The Chief also maintained an employee prayer board for weekly prayer requests and religious articles.

Schmitt noted that "as the face of local police enforcement, the Chief of Police is charged with great responsibility and has been given significant trust by Portage's citizens, including those citizens and employees who may not share his religious viewpoints."

A city attorney replied to FFRF's letter of complaint on March 5 stating that the Police Chief was "instructed to cease from religious displays or conduct that promotes or has the appearance of promoting sectarian beliefs while performing his duties as the Chief of Police." 

The County of Lackawanna Transportation System (COLTS) in Scranton, Pa., will no longer display "God Bless America" on its buses, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a Feb. 10 letter of complaint to Executive Director Robert Fiume. "It is inappropriate for COLTS buses to display 'God Bless America' messages on its buses because it conveys government support for belief in a god," wrote Schmitt. The COLTS buses included the overtly sectarian message via an electronic ticker. The transportation system used federal, state and county resources to share their message with passerby and was directly responsible for the 'God Bless America' sign placement.

Fiume confirmed on March 5 that the bus company had "updated its PR software to reflect only secular messages." 

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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