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18 September 2006

USA: Anti-abortion group loses tax exemption

The US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has revoked the tax exemption of Operation Rescue West, after receiving a complaint that it had violated prohibitions on electioneering by nonprofits in 2004.

Operation Rescue West had promised tax deductions for contributions to help defeat the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry. The organisation said the agency’s ruling would have little impact on its operations. ‘We have reorganised as simply Operation Rescue,’ said Cheryl Sullenger, the group’s outreach coordinator. ‘Losing our tax exemption doesn’t have much of an effect on us, one way or the other. We have learned some lessons through this whole thing, and I think we’re in a better place now than we were before the IRS investigation.’

The role of churches, religious organisations and charities in elections drew attention in the 2004 presidential campaign and has already become an issue as the midterm elections approach, reports the New York Times. Charities and churches are generally prohibited from campaigning for candidates but may take stands on issues and hand out voter guides, among other things. In February, the IRS said it had noticed a sharp increase in prohibited activities by charities and warned that it planned to reverse the trend. At the time, it said it was seeking to revoke the exemption of three organisations but did not name them, pending an appeals process.

Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC), a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of a woman’s right to choose abortion, filed a complaint against Operation Rescue West in 2004, citing its activities during the Democratic National Convention in Boston. It noted an advertisement Operation Rescue West placed in the July 15, 2004, edition of The Wanderer, a Roman Catholic weekly, seeking tax deductible contributions to help ‘defeat’ Mr. Kerry, thus enabling President Bush to appoint Supreme Court justices who could overturn the Roe v. Wade decision legalising abortion. At the Democratic convention, members of Operation Rescue West drove around a truck featuring a large photo of a late-stage aborted fetus and the words ‘Kerry’s Choice.’

‘It could not have been a more clear or blatant violation of the IRS rules,’ said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. Ms. Kissling said she had no way of knowing whether her group’s complaint had prompted the investigation of Operation Rescue West. Catholics for a Free Choice has also filed complaints alleging prohibited political activity against Priests for Life, a religious order on Staten Island, and Catholic Answers, a lay Catholic evangelical group.

In a press release for CFFC,  Frances Kissling said: ‘We applaud the IRS for its vigilance in monitoring election activities by 501(c)(3) organisations and hope the revocation of Operation Rescue West’s tax-exempt status will send a clear message to tax-exempt groups that think they are above the law that such activities will be monitored, reported to the IRS and acted upon.’

Anti-Abortion Group Loses Tax Exemption, New York Times, 15 September 2006

Operation Rescue West Loses Tax-Exempt Status, Catholics for a Free Choice, Press release 13 September 2006

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