From the pulpit, Catholic priests in Washington State must ask parishioners in the pews next month to stuff specially made campaign envelopes with their cash, and then church staff will mail the haul to a PAC trying to overturn same-sex marriage on the fall ballot.
That's the decree of Joseph J. Tyson, the bishop in Yakima, Washington, who says the clergy must ask Catholics for a give a "generous donation" to the campaign trying to reject Referendum 74.
"I am asking you to announce a special parishioner financial appeal at each Mass on the weekend of August 25/26 or September 1/2—whichever one you choose—to promote the September 8/9 in-pew collection for the Preserve Marriage Washington campaign," Tyson wrote in a letter earlier this month (.pdf). As Joel also noted, Tyson added, "Please Note: This is not a parish collection. Please be sure that parish staff knows that these envelopes are NOT to be opened or recorded by the parish."
That's not all: Bishop Tyson followed-up in a letter posted on his blog last Thursday, telling priests to reserve their Sunday masses in the first weekend of October to read his anti-gay campaign statement during mass, saying, "clear your parish calendars of any other items that day."
This anti-gay campaigning appears to be at the behest of Seattle's archbishop, J. Peter Sartain, who presides over the state's Catholic conference. In January, Sartain made an all-out pledge to raise money and campaign to defeat gay rights on the fall ballot.
Now you may be wondering, how does a tax-exempt, religious nonprofit legally engage in campaign activities, when those activities—fundraising for a PAC—are typically not tax exempt?
Indeed, this is not only a brazen attempt to fuse church and state, Archbishop Tyson is also hedging closer to the line of using a 501(c)(3) church for non-tax-deductible purposes. But that is legal, in limited doses, according to the IRS guide for religious organizations, which explains that "no substantial part of [a church's] activity may be attempting to influence legislation." So it's generally believed that Tyson and the church aren't violating the law unless they're using a "substantial" part of the church's resources, or about one-third of its resources, for campaign purposes—and I don't think he is, because writing this letter amounts to a fraction of the church's overall budget and activity. That said, I do think Tyson is using a substantial heft of the church's influence for campaign purposes. And he may be using it to collect a substantial chunk of what parishioners contribute over the course of a year while sitting in those pews.
Perhaps that's an intellectually dishonest way to shirk the spirit of election law. But then again, Archbishop Tyson is a dishonest politician. His letter explains: "The Church does not engage in partisan politics, but it has an obligation to teach about moral values of the issues facing society." Maybe Tyson can explain how it works, that they are nonpartisan, than Cardinal Timothy Dolan—the president of all the archbishops in the US—is delivering the closing prayer at the GOP convention this week.