At Sunday masses in September, from their respective pulpits, Catholic priests in Central Washington must ask everyone in the pews to stuff specially made campaign envelopes with a "generous donation." Then, church staff will mail the haul to Preserve Marriage Washington, a PAC trying to reject same-sex marriage on the fall ballot.
That was the decree of Joseph J. Tyson, the Catholic bishop in Yakima, who sent out the instructions on August 17. "Please place unopened envelopes into the addressed security envelope, and mail them to Preserve Marriage Washington," said his letter to clergy.
But state election workers say that Bishop Tyson's orders cross the line.
The church cannot act as an agent that collects money and sends it to a PAC, says Washington State Public Disclosure Commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson. That sort of activity is informally called "bundling," Anderson explains, and it would violate a state law that concerns collecting contributions on another's behalf. "They can hand out those envelopes," Anderson says, "but they can't collect them and send them in."
Like Archbishop J. Peter Sartain in Seattle, Bishop Tyson is launching an all-out campaign to turn sermons into political rallies. He followed up his fundraising letter with a blog post on Thursday, August 23, telling priests to reserve their Sunday masses in the first weekend of October to read his anti-gay campaign statement. You must "clear your parish calendars of any other items that day," the bishop said.
How does a tax-exempt religious nonprofit legally engage in campaign activities that are typically not tax-exempt? According to the IRS guide for religious organizations, it is legal in small doses, provided it's not a "substantial" part of the church's activity. But while limited campaigning from the pulpit may be legal for federal tax-exemption purposes, their activity has certainly concerned the state.
Anderson says that an election worker "is going to contact the Catholic Church... and see that they are complying."
Meanwhile, Washington United for Marriage, the PAC attempting to approve a same-sex-marriage law, has reserved $5 million worth of airtime for television commercials as the November 6 general election approaches, says campaign director Zach Silk.
Anti-gay Preserve Marriage Washington is lagging far behind. The group has raised a relatively scant $438,000—and has made no ad reservations, sources say. But, of course, the group is expected to receive an infusion of cash before Election Day from the National Organization for Marriage and the Catholic Church.