“Nothing prevents the IRS from doing this again. And these groups now have no judicial remedy,” he said.
Mayer said the lawsuit raises the important issue of whether the government’s rule is unconstitutionally vague.
“Catholic Answers is correct that the test is vulnerable to criticism that it unconstitutionally chills speech by charities that are tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) because it is difficult for them to know when the IRS will find that their speech violates this prohibition.”
It is “possible but not certain” the lawsuit’s constitutional claim would succeed, if a court would consider it.
Catholic organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic dioceses, are exempt from federal income tax as 501(c)(3) organizations. They are eligible to receive tax deductible contributions, but the tax code requires them not to support or oppose candidates for elected office.
“This prohibition applies to all organizations that claim these tax benefits, both religious and secular,” Mayer explained. “This prohibition prevents Catholic organizations from using tax deductible contributions for speech or other actions supporting or opposing candidates.”
Catholic organizations may create an affiliated organization that is exempt under 501(c)(4) rules, though these organizations are ineligible for tax deductible contributions. These organizations may support or oppose candidates, as long as doing so is not its primary activity.
Catholic Answers chose this path, he noted, by transferring responsibilities for its voter’s guide to its affiliate Catholic Answers Action.
“This option is not available for some types of speech, however, most notably speaking about candidates from the pulpit during a regular worship service,” Mayer explained.
Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services' Egan Journalism Fellowship.