A church-state watchdog group has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether the Roman Catholic bishop of Paterson, N.J., violated tax laws by denouncing Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, according to a report published in this morning's editions of USA Today.
In a letter sent to the IRS on Wednesday, Americans United for Separation of Church and State accused Paterson Bishop Arthur Serratelli of illegal partisanship for lambasting Obama's support of abortion rights, according to the article, reported by the Religion News Service.
Serratelli and the Diocese of Paterson oversee Catholic parishes in Morris County.
In a column posted on the Diocese of Paterson's Web site and published in its weekly newspaper, Serratelli also compared Obama to King Herod, the biblical monarch who ordered the death of John the Baptist.
The bishop did not refer to Obama by name but only as "the present democratic (sic) candidate."
Under federal tax law, nonprofit groups — including religious organizations — are prohibited from intervening in campaigns for public office by endorsing or opposing candidates.
Serratelli wrote that Obama has pledged, if elected president, to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, abortion-rights legislation the Catholic Church vehemently opposes.
"If this politician fulfills his promise, not only will many of our freedoms as Americans be taken from us, but the innocent and vulnerable will spill their blood," Serratelli wrote.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, president of Americans United, said it is "impossible to interpret this passage as anything but a command to vote against 'the present Democratic candidate' because of his promise to sign a certain piece of legislation disfavored by the Catholic Church's hierarchy."
The Paterson diocese said Serratelli's column was focused on proposed abortion legislation, not the upcoming presidential election.
"It's absolutely, positively misleading to say that the bishop urged Catholics not to vote for Sen. Obama," the diocese said in a statement.
Rob Boston, a spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United, said that of the estimated 90 claims it has filed with the IRS since 1996, only four others have accused Catholic bishops or dioceses of electioneering.
Earlier this year, Americans United asked the IRS to investigate Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence for criticizing former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was running for the Republican presidential nomination at the time.