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IRS is asked to investigate Springs diocese: Americans United for Separation of Church and State says Bishop Sheridan's recent letter essentially orders Catholics to vote Republican

 

5/31/2004 1:23:00 PM by Eric Gorski - Republican

 

A church-state separation group on Thursday asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the Colorado Springs Roman Catholic diocese, saying Bishop Michael Sheridan may have crossed the line into unlawful partisan politicking.

 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State contends Sheridan's May 1 pastoral letter on voting and politics is a command that Catholics vote Republican. The Washington, D.C.-based group argues Sheridan may have violated federal tax law and jeopardized the diocese's tax-exempt status.

 

The Colorado Springs diocese countered that the group distorted Sheridan's teaching and his role as bishop.

 

"Bishop Sheridan would be remiss as a shepherd if he did not teach the members of his flock about these issues and call upon them to conform every aspect of their lives in accordance with these moral values," a diocese statement said.

 

IRS spokesman Don Roberts said Thursday that disclosure rules prevent the agency from even acknowledging whether it has received complaints.

 

It's believed the IRS only once has revoked the tax-exempt status of a church: a New York church that placed a newspaper ad urging people to vote against Bill Clinton. A former IRS commissioner said Thursday it's unlikely the agency will act on the new complaint.

 

In a letter to the IRS, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State says Sheridan's letter "is little more than a thinly veiled effort to steer voters toward candidates like President George W. Bush and other Republicans who agree with the church on certain issues, mainly abortion."

 

Sheridan calls the November election critical. He mentions the decline in abortions: "We cannot allow the progress that has been made to be reversed by a pro-abortion president, Senate or House of Representatives." He also says the church "never directs citizens to vote for a specific candidate."

 

Sheridan wrote that Catholic politicians may not take Communion if they break with church teachings against abortion rights, euthanasia, gay marriage and stem-cell research. He applied the same standard to Catholics who vote for such candidates. The diocese says individuals must decide whether they are Communion-worthy.

 

A category of tax-exempt groups including Catholic dioceses is barred from participating or intervening in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate.

 

Lynn wrote that Sheridan's stance amounts to a command Catholics must support GOP candidates for president and in Colorado's U.S. Senate race.

 

He says Sheridan's letter appears to violate new guidelines on political activity from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The guidelines say the use of "code words" such as "conservative," "liberal," "pro-life" and "pro-choice," paired with discussion of a candidate or election, may be stepping over the line. Sheridan twice uses "pro-life."

 

Most recently, Lynn's group complained to the IRS about an African-American Protestant pastor who referred to Democrat John Kerry as "the next president of the United States."

 

Tim Dore, director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of Colorado's three dioceses, emphasized Sheridan never has referred to a candidate or political party.

 

"I'm struck how by we're in the year 2004, and it's a shame there are still some who believe Americans cannot speak out on issues of moral importance," Dore said. "And when some do, they retaliate almost on them simply because they're Christian or Catholic."

 

Donald Alexander, a former IRS commissioner, said the IRS has been reluctant to wade into religion, and that Sheridan would likely be safe as long as he doesn't name candidates.

 

"He's getting close to the line," Alexander said. "Has he stepped over the line? Probably not."

 

 

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