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Court to Rule on Catholic Church Tax Exemption

December 08, 1987|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear arguments in a controversy over whether the Roman Catholic Church should lose its tax-exempt status because of its anti-abortion lobbying and be subject to fines of $100,000 a day for failing to surrender related records.

Federal law grants tax exemptions to religious organizations but not to groups involved in political activities. The Catholic Church, faced with a legal challenge by pro-abortion activists, has failed in attempts in two lower courts to quash the suit and has been hit with the huge daily fines for refusing to provide more than 20,000 pages of church records on its funding and anti-abortion activities.

Issue of Legal Standing

The Supreme Court agreed to rule on a key underlying issue: whether taxpayers and political activists have legal standing to force the federal government to enforce tax laws. The decision will determine whether the fines--none of which the church actually has paid--can be imposed and whether the case can go to trial.

The case involves a suit filed against the Internal Revenue Service by Abortion Rights Mobilization Inc. of New York, charging that the federal government, by allowing the church to keep its tax-exempt status, in effect has been subsidizing the church's political campaigning against abortion.

The church "has engaged in a nationwide, persistent and regular pattern of intervening in elections in favor of candidates who support the church's position on abortion and in opposition to candidates with opposing views," the suit alleges. This is a "clear violation" of the Internal Revenue Code on tax-exempt organizations and amounts to "favoritism" in the struggle between two political lobbies, according to the suit.

Direct Harm Claimed

In the past, the courts have frowned on suits brought by taxpayers seeking to force government actions, but this challenge is bolstered by the fact that the pro-abortionists say that they have been directly harmed.

In June, the federal appeals court in New York concluded that the pro-abortion group has incurred a "direct, personal injury" by being put at a "competitive disadvantage" in the political arena. Therefore, it should have legal standing to bring the suit to federal court, wrote Judge Jon O. Newman, who, in addition, upheld the fines imposed by a lower court against the U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The two bodies represent 28,000 Catholic churches and organizations nationwide.

Attorneys for the IRS and the church contend that the case involves an issue of "social policy" that is properly in the realm of the executive and legislative branches of government, not the courts.

Petition by Solicitor General

"The plaintiffs in this suit are essentially seeking to exercise control over the executive branch's allocation of its law enforcement responsibilities, not to obtain a binding resolution of a specific legal question," U.S. Solicitor General Charles Fried said in a petition on behalf of the Justice Department.

Lawyers representing other major religious groups also urged that the suit be dismissed, saying that orders seeking "sensitive church records constitute a grave threat to the legitimate autonomy of religious bodies in our constitutional order."

The justices will hear arguments in the case (U.S. Catholic Conference vs. Abortion Rights Mobilization, 87-416) in April. By then, they may be joined by a ninth justice, Anthony M. Kennedy, whose nomination is pending before the Senate. If confirmed, he would be the high court's third Catholic, joining Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Antonin Scalia.

To Hear Miranda Issue

In other actions, the court:

--Agreed to hear an appeal by Arizona prosecutors who want to use the confession of a man who refused at first to talk to police but later waived his rights and admitted a burglary (Arizona vs. Roberson, 87-354). A state court said that the original rejection should stand and the confession be ignored. The justices in recent years have used similar cases to limit the so-called Miranda rule, which requires police officers to inform suspects of their right to remain silent and other rights.

--Agreed to hear the appeal of a Maryland Death Row inmate who says that the state's capital punishment law is so rigid that it virtually forces juries to sentence convicted murderers to death (Mills vs. Maryland, 87-5367). But Maryland officials say that the justices should use this case to overturn a June high court ruling that forbids the use in death cases of "victim impact" statements, in which jurors are told the effects of the crime on the victim or the victim's survivors. That ruling was issued on a 5-4 vote, with now-retired Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. writing for the majority.

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