Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, suggested today in an op-ed on Politico.com that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops should lose their tax exempt status because of their advocacy for the Stupak amendment, which was added to the Affordable Health Care for America Act. The amendment adds unfortunate restrictions to the right of women to make their own reproductive health care decisions.
But Woolsey’s call would undermine religious freedom in America.
First, her words:
The role the bishops played in the pushing the Stupak amendment, which unfairly restricts access for low-income women to insurance coverage for abortions, was more than mere advocacy.
They seemed to dictate the finer points of the amendment, and managed to bully members of Congress to vote for added restrictions on a perfectly legal surgical procedure.
And this political effort was subsidized by taxpayers, since the Council enjoys tax-exempt status.
When I visit churches in my district, we are very careful to keep everything “non-political” to protect their tax-exempt status. The IRS is less restrictive about church involvement in efforts to influence legislation than it is about involvement in campaigns and elections.
Given the political behavior of USCCB in this case, maybe it shouldn’t be.
Churches are governed under the 501 (c) 3 code of the IRS. Partisan political activity (advocating for candidates or political parties, for example) is prohibited. Issue advocacy is protected.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did nothing different in advocating for the Stupak amendment than what the United Church of Christ and others have done in favor of pro-choice legislation. Churches have to be free of government interference.
Just this week religious leaders issued an Open Letter from Religious Leaders to Members of Congress Supporting Inclusion of Abortion Services in Health Care Reform, which I supported.
The best statement that I know of on the role of church and state comes from the United Methodist Church. It reads:
We believe that the state should not attempt to control the church, nor should the church seek to dominate the state. The rightful and vital separation of church and state, which has served the cause of religious liberty, should not be misconstrued as the abolition of all religious expression from public life.
Congressman Woolsey's threat against the Bishops is a threat against all churches - whether the theology be progressive or conservative - and undermines the Constitutional protections afforded all people of faith.
If we were to take away the tax exempt status of every group that politicians disagree with it would injure our freedoms.
All people - regardless of faith or party - should condemn Rep. Woolsey's comments.