Political Catholic group seeks court ruling as defense against IRS

Catholic Answers, an information and advocacy group run by non-clergy members, last week asked the US Supreme Court to examine the way the Internal Revenue Service determines whether or not a nonprofit group has engaged in improper political activity. The group drew the attention of the IRS after criticizing Sen. John Kerry during his bid for president in 2004. To many, a case of this kind will seem long overdue, given the increasingly politicized nature of religious organizations in the United States over the last four decades.

In its brief with the court (pdf), Catholic Answers argues that, in seeking to establish the legality of the group’s claim to tax-exempt status, the IRS has forced the group to continue to refile refund claims for years, effectively postponing a decision in the matter and thereby “chilling speech.”

Tax-exempt nonprofit groups such as churches are barred from performing express political candidate advocacy. They can take up political issues, however, and in championing charged issues like abortion, the line separating advocacy for an anti-abortion position and the Republican Party generally has become thinner and thinner.

Catholic Answers calls itself an “apostolate,” by which it means it is carrying on its educational and evangelical mission with the Church’s blessing, although none of its members are ordained. Established in 1979, the group produces books, magazines, videos and a daily radio show on Church teachings and Church positions on issues of the day.

The group is being represented in its case against the IRS by high-profile religious-right attorney James Bopp, a reported adviser to presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Bopp advised Citizens United in its now-famous campaign finance case. He also defended the national anti-abortion organization Susan B Anthony List in a defamation suit filed by former Congressman Steve Driehaus. Bopp has also served as general counsel for National Right to Life and as special counsel for Focus on the Family.

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