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Group asks IRS to revoke Catholic diocese's tax exemption

By The Associated Press
05.28.04

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A secular group asked the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Roman Catholic diocese in Colorado Springs yesterday, saying the bishop violated federal tax law when he threatened to withhold Communion from those who disagree with the church.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington, said Bishop Michael Sheridan went too far when he sent out a church letter saying Catholics should not receive Communion if they vote for politicians who disagree with the church by backing abortion rights and other topics.

“I think Bishop Sheridan has gone over the line, telling voters whom to vote for,” Lynn said.

Lynn said the U.S. Catholic Conference has warned church officials about using words that have political impact. Several U.S. Catholic bishops have instructed Catholic politicians and voters to pay heed to church teachings.

The leaders of Colorado’s three Catholic dioceses, with about 600,000 Catholics, all have spoken out.

Earlier this month, Sheridan wrote in a Catholic newspaper that Catholic politicians may not take Communion if they break with church teachings against abortion rights, euthanasia, gay marriage and stem-cell research. He said the same standard applies to ordinary Catholics who vote for such candidates — believed to be the most dramatic warning from any U.S. prelate on the topic so far.

A receptionist at diocese headquarters said no one was available for comment.

IRS spokesman Don Roberts said the agency cannot comment on specific cases, but has guidelines to evaluate third-party complaints. Among those guidelines is a “reasonable belief” standard to determine whether further action is needed.

In a letter to the IRS, Lynn said the church should lose its tax-exempt status because it is using church resources for political purposes.

“I believe that Bishop Sheridan, by issuing this document in a church publication in his official capacity as head of a religious organization, may have violated federal tax law and jeopardized the tax-exempt status of the Diocese of Colorado Springs,” Lynn wrote division director Steven Miller.

Lynn said churches and other tax-exempt organizations can engage in limited political debate involving bills before Congress, but cannot tell people how to vote.

Earlier this week, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote a column saying Catholics should refrain from Communion if they’re “living in serious sin” or deny the church’s teachings. He did not mention voting or political hot-button topics.

Denver attorney Robert Tiernan has also said he also believes Chaput and Sheridan are electioneering and said he will challenge the Roman Catholic church’s tax-exempt status in Colorado.

Timothy Dore, an attorney who heads the church’s lobbying efforts in Colorado, said previously that voter registration and education efforts are intended to raise awareness of Catholic social teaching, not tell people how to vote.


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