Should Religious Organizations be required to Disclose Their Spending on Lobbying?

Earlier this month, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) suggested that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) look into the work of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for their extensive lobbying on the health care bill. Woolsey charged the work "was more than mere advocacy."

They seemed to dictate the finer points of the amendment, and managed to bully members of Congress to vote for added restrictions on a perfectly legal surgical procedure. And this political effort was subsidized by taxpayers, since the Council enjoys tax-exempt status. [. . .] The IRS is less restrictive about church involvement in efforts to influence legislation than it is about involvement in campaigns and elections.

Churches may engage in lobbying, as long as it is no more than "insubstantial" and are exempt from reporting requirements. Eliza Carney's latest column in the National Journal ($$) examines the role of the Catholic bishops, "who've emerged as formidable lobbyists but who face virtually none of the lobbying or disclosure rules that apply to the rest of Washington."

At a press conference, Barry Lynn the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), called on the Catholic bishops to voluntarily disclose their lobbying expenditures. "The move would not be without precedent. The Friends Committee on National Legislation, the advocacy arm of the Religious Society of Friends, details its $3.5 million budget on its Web site."

Still, recent religious political activism has exposed regulatory loopholes, said legal scholar Brian Galle. The Mormon church's multimillion-dollar ballot initiative campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California "exposes a serious hole in the fabric of the federal law," Galle recently wrote in the Northwestern University Law Review. While churches and other charities may do no more than "insubstantial" lobbying, Galle said, the IRS has failed to precisely define that term and issued few clear guidelines to govern lobbying by charities.
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