Why the New York Archbishop’s Fight With Gov. Paterson Could Be Legal Trouble


New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz has some friends in high places when it comes to his fight against gay marriage. At the top: Brand new New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who took over the post on Tuesday. Dolan has already been vocal on his gay marriage stance: He don’t like it! But he also insists he’s not anti-gay, which makes about as much sense as denying the scientific evidence behind evolution. Now, just days into his tenure, he’s promised to take on Gov. David Paterson’s attempt to pass same-sex marriage legislation.

At a news conference, Dolan insisted, “You’ll find I don’t shy away from those things. I wouldn’t sidestep them. You could expect me to articulate that with all the clarity … I can muster.” It’s part of his promise to use his position to fight marriage equality legislation.

And sadly, it appears Dolan can use his bully pulpit to do just that. FOR NOW.

As a tax-exempt non-profit, the Archdiocese of New York can take a stand on political matters — but cannot advocate for a particular political candidate during an election. Doing so could strip them of their exemption, something the church would be stupid to risk. Which means while Paterson is a sitting governor and going about his normal course of business, the church can say whether they like what he’s doing or not.

However, the territory becomes more murky as we move closer to Paterson’s re-election (or rather, first-time election) campaign. If Dolan targets Paterson specifically during his bid to re-up as governor, then the Archdiocese could be in trouble. The IRS code is very straight-forward when it comes to which activities federal tax-exempt organizations may participate in. Notes Pew: “Religious organizations, as well as all other organizations exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, are prohibited from participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office … The IRS has advised that for an issue discussion to violate the political campaign intervention prohibition, it must contain some reasonably overt indication of support for or opposition to a particular candidate. A communication is particularly at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if it makes reference to candidates or voting in a specific upcoming election.”

Since Paterson isn’t technically, yet, running for governor again, Dolan’s statements are more apt to be considered kosher. But as 2010 approaches, and Paterson (or any other candidate) announces his candidacy, Dolan will be forced to limit his anti-gay marriage stance to just the issue, and not Paterson’s support of it — for that could be seen as the endorsement (or rather, non-endorsement) of a candidate.

(As for the Archdiocese’s ability to lobby government officials, that’s also likely to be okay. The IRS allows lobbying for tax-exempt non-profits so long as the lobbying efforts represent an “insubstantial” part of its regular activities each year. Naturally, many religious types don’t like these restrictions.)

Which means Dolan can advocate against same-sex marriage, but he’d be wise not to address Paterson’s position specifically. If he or the church does, it could be seen as advocacy, a big no-no for publicly funded religious institutions.

Meanwhile, interviewing some of the gawkers outside Dolan’s 5,000-person installation ceremony on Tuesday, the Daily News heard from locals that Dolan was a “people person, and hopefully he’ll bring the people together.”

Sounds like he’s about to do the exact opposite.

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