Church Accused of Violating Federal Law by Telling Parishioners to Vote Against Obama

A church-state watchdog group has reported a Roman Catholic Church in El Paso, Texas, to the Internal Revenue Service after the church allegedly ran a notice in its bulletin that encouraged parishioners not to vote for President Barack Obama in the upcoming presidential election.

"The language that appeared in the bulletin – an official publication of the church – clearly encourages parishioners to vote against incumbent presidential candidate Barack Obama," Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in his letter to the IRS concerning St. Raphael Catholic Church.

"Since federal law prohibits tax exempt, non-profit organizations (including houses of worship) from intervening in elections like this, I believe St. Raphael Church is in violation of the law."

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Americans United admits that it does not have an actual copy of the notice in question, which was distributed on Aug. 5, though the organization says the church does not deny having published the notice.

"I am asking all of you to go to the polls and be united in replacing our present president with a president that will respect the Catholic Church in this country," the notice said, according to Americans United. "Please pass this on to all of your Catholic friends."

Federal law prohibits nonprofit organizations from intervening in any political campaign by making public statements either for or against any candidate. Violating this law can result in the revocation of a nonprofit's tax-exempt status and other penalties should the organization be found guilty.

The El Paso Times reports that Msgr. Francis J. Smith, the pastor of St. Raphael, had a message of retraction inserted into the church's bulletins on Sunday after the Diocese of El Paso was made aware of the situation last week.

"I am recanting the last two sentences from this statement as it was published on Aug. 5, 2012," the message says, according to the Times. "I apologize and ask for your forgiveness if I have offended anyone. The last thing I wish to do is be offensive to my faith and the faithful."

Smith could not be reached for additional comment.

"I'm glad that the diocese issued a retraction, but this sort of endorsement should never have happened in the first place," said Lynn in an email to The Christian Post on Tuesday. "The law banning political intervention by non-profits is not new. It has been around since the 1950s. Members of the clergy should be familiar with this law by now and should be following it."

Lynn, who is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, says the complaint against St. Raphael's is the seventh of its kind issued by Americans United so far this year. His organization is currently working to reduce the number of violations by sending letters about the "no politicking" law to clergy nationwide.

"All houses of worship -- no matter what their political leanings -- should abide by the law," said Lynn. "The American people have been clear on this matter: They attend houses of worship for spiritual purposes, not to hear partisan political rants."

Alliance Defending Freedom, meanwhile, is defending a pastor's right to speak on politics from the pulpit. It launched Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008 with the goal to remove the ability of the IRS to censor what a pastor says. This year's Pulpit Freedom Sunday will be on Oct. 7.

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