Jenky’s Electioneering Error: Religious Right Is Missing the Point
The real problem with Bishop Jenky’s proclamations from the pulpit isn’t the Godwinian comparison of President Obama to Hitler and Stalin, but rather his clear electioneering that violates Federal laws for tax exempt organizations.
In an April 14 sermon at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Bishop Daniel Jenky said, in part, “Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services, and health care. In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama - with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path.”
Jenky, the top official of the diocese, later said, “This fall, every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences, or by the following fall our Catholic schools, our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Newman Centers, all our public ministries — only excepting our church buildings - could easily be shut down.”
Tax-exempt organizations, including churches, are prohibited by federal tax law from engaging in partisan politics. Any rational person knows Jenky was telling his parishioners to vote against Obama. And the IRS treats such open intervention in a political campaign as a violation of the law. (Even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warns its clergy not to endorse or oppose candidates or “take any action that reasonably could be construed as endorsement or opposition.”)
But some people don’t seem to comprehend the situation. After AU reported the Peoria diocese, our critics wrote to tell us that we “don’t understand what church-state separation means.” One email correspondent even suggested that we look up that definition in Wikipedia.
Trust us. We know what it means. We’ve been defending religious liberty since 1947, which is quite a few years longer than Wikipedia has been around. We’ve got this stuff covered.
Others accused us of stifling free speech. Even if they didn’t agree with Jenky’s extreme hyperbole, they felt he had every right to address public issues. They’re partly right about that, of course. Religious leaders do have a constitutional right to discuss the moral implications of public policy issues, even in extreme language if they choose.
But Jenky didn’t stop there. The bishop, the top employee of a tax-exempt institution, used his official position to urge congregants to vote a certain way. He not only issued his election orders from the pulpit, he posted them on the church’s tax-exempt website.