Maybe It’s Not a Church/State Violation? November 16, 2008

Maybe It’s Not a Church/State Violation?

Reader (and lawyer) Bruce offers his take on the Catholic Churches denying Communion crackers to anyone who voted for Barack Obama — and whether that constitutes a violation of separation of church and state:

… I don’t know that urging those who voted for X not to participate in a religious rite AFTER the election has been held may not constitute “political activity” because it is not a recommendation on how to vote, AND it cannot influence the vote that already took place. Revenue Ruling 2007-41 [PDF] may provide some guidance on many questions but does not do so on this precise point. This is a somewhat pedantic point but I don’t know that this precise point has been explored by the IRS, Tax Court or judicial courts before.

I guess what I am saying is that what the priest did stinks but he may have barely stayed in bounds. If you know of other legal authority on this point (not my primary area of practice).

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  • DSimon

    I don’t know about legal authority, but the idea that there’s no coercion involved in doing stuff like this after elections is obviously bunk.
    When the next election comes around, members of the church who voted the “wrong” way will know what’s in store for them if they do so again.

  • The, “The election already took place, so it can’t possibly coerce voters” argument has one major flaw: There is no indication that Obama will not run for a second term in 2012.

  • Politics aside, it’s definitely a Separation of Church and Being A Jerkwad issue, and the line has been crossed!

  • llewelly

    This argument is ridiculous. It should be obvious to anyone that Obama is likely to run again. It’s also possible for Biden to run. How is it not electioneering for future elections?

  • Richard Wade

    Well, even if they don’t get in trouble with the IRS they’re still cutting their own throats. I think more of their flock will leave the church than those who will turn around and comply and vote as they are told.

    Somehow I’m not upset about that.

  • If there was any hint that this was in the offing beforehand, then of course it would influence votes – and if there was NO hint, then how capricious!

    And of course – whether or not Obama runs again – it will surely make certain that the voters in the congregation will want to know who the “correct” candidate is next time.

  • Santiago

    The church made a political statement, surely it doesnt matter if the statement is after the election?

  • I agree with several of the commenters here. How does it not influence future elections?

  • Erp

    It does influence future elections. If the hierarchy repudiates the action, it isn’t a major problem since it happened after an election and a long time before the next one.

    In this case the priest seems to have had his knuckles mildly rapped by a diocese administrator (after said administrator approved of the letter); however, others are spinning it another way by blaming the AP headline as being wrong and the letter misunderstood.

    The complete text of the letter can be found at

  • Epistaxis

    This is different from the Mormons & Prop. 8 because he was speaking specifically about a candidate, which is expressly forbidden, whereas the LDS church was advocating for a ballot initiative, which it’s allowed to do within certain bounds.

  • Lynn

    Well…the Church was focusing on this specific candidate because of very specific words that candidate uttered about a very specific action he vowed to take…


    It’s complicated.

    It is certainly within legal boundaries and Catholic pastoral obligation to remind congregants that it is their moral duty as Catholics to not promote certain actions their Church teaches are intrinsically evil, and that cooperating with the promotion of intrinsic evil is an action in itself which separates the participating member from the body of the Church (or “excommunicates”), therefore that member should refrain from receiving Communion until he or she has sought reconciliation.

    Now, you can agree or not with whatever the Church teaches, and you can find priests who’ve handled this issue inappropriately and badly and even abusively, but I don’t think you can find legal grounds here for negating the Catholic Church’s tax-exempt status.

  • False Prophet

    Dear Father Newman,

    Catholic doctrine is quite firm that war is sinful unless it is a “just war”. Both the current and previous Popes have made it clear that the Iraq War is not just by theological definition. Why was supporting the candidate who called for the war to perpetuate “for 100 years” more moral than supporting the president-elect, who supports removing combat troops from Iraq as soon as possible?

    Catholics are called upon to help the poor and oppressed, as Christ himself stated many, many times in the Gospels. Why then was it ethical to support the political party that has done more to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor than the president-elect’s party?

    Church doctrine is clear that capital punishment is sinful. Who was the ethical candidate to support on this issue?

    I await your learned response to my queries, but I’m sure it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

    A Lapsed Catholic*

    (*In part because of this exact kind of doctrinaire hopscotch.)

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