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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Weekend campaigning at Nashua churches violated parish policy, officials say

NASHUA – Groups that used Catholic churches for campaigning this weekend annoyed local parishioners and violated church policy, officials said.

The Rev. Richard Kelley, pastor at St. Christopher Catholic Church, said the campaigning groups gathered without his permission Saturday, and when he learned of them, he asked them to leave. ...

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NASHUA – Groups that used Catholic churches for campaigning this weekend annoyed local parishioners and violated church policy, officials said.

The Rev. Richard Kelley, pastor at St. Christopher Catholic Church, said the campaigning groups gathered without his permission Saturday, and when he learned of them, he asked them to leave.

“It was done without my knowledge,” Kelley said. “The person said to me, ‘Well, we’ll go to St. John Neumann,’ and I said, ‘You’ll get the same reception.’

“People are not supposed to be hearing about political candidates on church property,” he added. “Separation of church and state.”

A parishioner – who asked to remain anonymous Monday – told The Telegraph that sign-wavers and car leafleting at St. Christopher Catholic Church in Nashua went “beyond the pale” for appropriate parish activities this weekend.

“No one wants to seem to be against the church, but it’s their tax-exempt status,” she said. “It seems to be a little much to me.”

The activities rallied support for perceived pro-life candidates, she said, and waved “freedom of religion” signs.

Eileen Bowes, director of religious education at Immaculate Conception Church, said she also stopped a New York group in the parish parking lot from distributing campaign leaflets contrasting President Barack Obama’s positions with GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s.

The group had moved to Immaculate Conception after parish officials at the Parish of Resurrection asked them to leave, Bowes said.

“I confronted them and I got the fliers, and I told them they couldn’t do that, that this was private property,” she said.

The group eventually handed over their fliers, Bowes said. But later that day, she also fielded calls from parishioners who were angry with sign-wavers on church sidewalks.

“Our policy is no soliciting – period,” Bowes said. “I made it very clear to the people holding the fliers. The ones holding the signs were on city property, but I was totally unaware of what they were doing.”

State election law does not prohibit politicking at churches.

“I’m unaware of anything in the election laws that would govern that one way or the other,” Associate Attorney General Richard Head said.

But the Catholic Diocese of Manchester has specific policies against it, as does the Internal Revenue Service.

According to the diocese’s website, endorsing or opposing particular candidates for public office or political parties are “impermissible” activities for a church, as are partisan ads, signs, posters or campaign literature.

The diocese also prohibits political leafleting, parties or campaigns using diocesan facilities, slanted voter registration activities, and biased surveys.

Enforcement can be difficult and retroactive.

“We don’t post police officers at our churches,” said Pat McGee, cabinet secretary of communications, planning and development for the Diocese of Manchester. “The pastor understands the policy. Often, if they see something happening, they tell the people they’re not allowed to do that.”

Groups sometimes take advantage of churchgoers’ cars during Mass, McGee said, and political materials do turn up around elections.

Bishop Peter Libasci issued a letter Oct. 31 urging Catholics to “prayerfully consider their vote,” and drew attention to “the identity of the one in the womb” and to “caring for the poor, the weak, the frightened, the disabled, the marginalized and many more for whom Christ’s love is made present.”

It does not endorse any parties or candidates.

Under the IRS’ “Tax Guide for Churches and Religious organizations,” 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and religious organizations, are “absolutely prohibited” from participating or intervening in any political activity directly or indirectly, for or against any candidate for elective public office.

Nonpartisan, nonbiased voter education and registration activities are allowed. But the IRS also directs tax-exempt organizations to “avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention.”

The Associated Press reported Saturday that the IRS hasn’t investigated complaints of partisan political activity by churches for the past three years.

Catholic churches aren’t the only ones to bear the brunt of campaign activities around election season.

“It does happen every now and then,” Kelley said. “It doesn’t happen just at Catholic churches, it happens at other churches. People should not be doing that, campaigning or putting stuff on automobiles in church parking lots.”

The IRS did not return The Telegraph’s inquiries by press deadline.

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Gill
on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).