PEORIA – An Illinois bishop's order to priests in his diocese to read a letter from the pulpit this weekend critical of President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats is drawing charges from a liberal group that he may be jeopardizing his church's tax-exempt status.
Catholic Diocese of Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky's letter says the president and the current majority in the U.S. Senate have been unwilling to consider Catholic objections to a requirement that insurance companies provide birth control to employees of religious organizations.
The letter says voters who enable "the destruction of innocent human life in the womb" are "guilty of grave sin." Jenky instructed priests to read it at every Mass over the weekend.
The liberal advocacy group Catholics United issued a statement saying the letter amounts to a violation of IRS guidelines. But diocese chancellor Patricia Gibson said the letter doesn't violate IRS restrictions because it doesn't mention any candidate by name – referring to Obama only as "the president" – or instruct anyone how to vote.
"He basically gives guidelines in his own mind on how things should be evaluated, leaving it up to each person how to vote," Gibson said. "I don't agree this is a violation of IRS guidelines. I think it's pretty typical" of what religious leaders say during an election year.
The IRS determines whether a church has violated its tax-exempt status. Churches are allowed to engage in a wide range of political activities, but cannot endorse a candidate or engage in outright partisan activity. The IRS has rarely revoked a church's nonprofit status.
Jenky's letter reads in part: "Neither the president of the United States nor the current majority of the Federal Senate have been willing to even consider the Catholic community's grave objections to those [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] mandates that would require all Catholic institutions, exempting only our church buildings, to fund abortion, sterilization, and artificial contraception."
The letter continues: "Today, Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord. They are objectively guilty of grave sin."
The letter concludes by calling on practicing Catholics in the Peoria diocese to vote and to be "faithful to Christ and to your Catholic Faith."
Jenky drew criticism earlier this year for likening Obama's infringement on religious freedom to acts of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The diocese said at the time that Jenky was defending religious freedom and his statement had been distorted and misunderstood. His comparison, according to a diocese spokeswoman, was meant to prevent a repetition of historical attacks on the Catholic Church and other religions.
Jenky also is known for leading a long campaign to see the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, a central Illinois native, made a saint.