-By Mary Wisniewski
November 12, 2012- Political watchdog and secularist groups are asking the U.S. government to investigate whether Catholic bishops and a Christian evangelical group headed by preacher Billy Graham should lose tax breaks for telling followers how to vote in this year's election.
Under constitutional protections of free speech and separation of church and state, churches are free to speak on any issue. But they risk losing tax breaks worth $145 billion in the past decade if they violate Internal Revenue Service rules by promoting or opposing any particular candidate. Other non-profits also have special tax status.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a political watchdog group, in its complaint to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, cited reports of individual bishops "abusing their positions to advocate against the election of President Barack Obama."
The group's executive director, Melanie Sloan, said some bishops went too far by saying a vote for Democrats would mean going to hell. "I don't think the Catholic bishops should be intimidating parishioners to advocate for any particular candidate," said Sloan.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation complained to the IRS about possible illegal political campaign intervention by Wisconsin Catholic bishops and the Charlotte, North Carolina-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
IRS spokesman Dean Patterson declined to comment on the complaints or on whether there was any investigation. "Federal law prohibits the IRS from discussing specific taxpayers or situations," Patterson said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, through its spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said it would not comment on what a bishop says in his diocese.