The furor over abortion and health care has brought fresh scrutiny to the nation's Catholic bishops, who've emerged as formidable lobbyists but who face virtually none of the lobbying or disclosure rules that apply to the rest of Washington.
That's angered some on Capitol Hill, who argue the Catholic bishops have stepped over the line, and prompted calls for more transparency and better oversight of lobbying by religious organizations.
The bishops' direct role crafting the House health care bill's abortion language raised eyebrows both on and off Capitol Hill.
Lobbying laws specifically exempt churches from reporting requirements, and tax laws likewise require virtually no disclosure. Though all non-religious 501(c)3 charitable organizations must file IRS Form 990 reporting their basic finances, churches are, again, exempt. Tax laws do forbid churches and other charities from engaging in anything more than "insubstantial" lobbying, but legal experts say that term is ill-defined.
In this regulatory vacuum, the Catholic bishops have quietly built a sophisticated legal, public relations and lobbying team that's waded aggressively into the health care fight. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church, which operates health insurance plans and hospitals all over the country, has a substantial financial stake in the debate.
"The reality is that they have a horse in this race, and it's a financial horse," said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, which backs abortion rights. Indiana alone has 35 Catholic hospitals and 26 other Catholic health care facilities, according to O'Brien. Catholic Charities, the bishops' service arm, gets 67 percent of its income from government funding, he noted, an amount that he said totaled $2.6 billion in 2008.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church's governing body in the U.S., declined to comment beyond its public statement that it "will remain vigilant and involved" throughout the health care debate, which has "serious moral dimensions." The bishops have taken care to make sure that their strong health care statements do not threaten the church's tax-exempt status, Bishop William Murphy recently told Roll Call.
But the bishops' direct role crafting the House health care bill's abortion language raised eyebrows both on and off Capitol Hill. Following personal calls and visits to Democratic leaders and lawmakers, the bishops won approval for an amendment introduced by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and other conservatives that would block the insurance plans under the bill's public option from covering elective abortions.
Abortion rights advocates said the measure went far beyond current so-called Hyde Amendment restrictions, which bar federal funding from paying for abortions except in cases of life endangerment, health risk, rape or incest. The Senate bill contains less stringent abortion language, but the issue may still prove a sticking point.
There's "a visceral sense that this [Catholic lobbying] went way over the line -- even if as a technical matter, it didn't violate the law," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
At a recent press conference with several religious organizations, Lynn called on the Catholic bishops to voluntarily disclose their lobbying expenditures. The move would not be without precedent. The Friends Committee on National Legislation, the advocacy arm of the Religious Society of Friends, details its $3.5 million budget on its Web site.
Not that Lynn really expects the bishops to take up his challenge. The Catholic hierarchy has mightily resisted pressure from its laity to open its books as it doles out tens of millions in sexual abuse lawsuit settlements.
Nor is Congress likely to embrace new restrictions on churches, despite a recent suggestion by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., that IRS rules may be too lenient. "The IRS is less restrictive about church involvement in efforts to influence legislation than it is about involvement in campaigns and elections," Woolsey recently noted in Politico. "Given the political behavior of USCCB in this case, maybe it shouldn't be."
Still, recent religious political activism has exposed regulatory loopholes, said legal scholar Brian Galle. The Mormon church's multimillion-dollar ballot initiative campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California "exposes a serious hole in the fabric of the federal law," Galle recently wrote in the Northwestern University Law Review.
While churches and other charities may do no more than "insubstantial" lobbying, Galle said, the IRS has failed to precisely define that term and issued few clear guidelines to govern lobbying by charities. In the recent debate over abortion and health care, Galle said in an interview, it's unclear whether Catholic lobbying was "insubstantial" or not.
The bishops' conference has a 2010 budget of $144.5 million and operates a Committee on Pro-Life Activities run by nine bishops that boasts 13 consultants and an eight-person staff.
"The organization as a whole is spending a very tiny part of their resources on lobbying activities," said Galle, a professor at Florida State University's College of Law. "But in absolute terms, that might be millions of dollars of value. So is that an insubstantial amount?"
To the bishops' lobbying adversaries, it's enough to warrant scrutiny.
"They are playing politics," said O'Brien, of Catholics for Choice. "This is not a pastoral role. And Catholics need to ask themselves what's being said in their name, just as Congress needs to ask who's playing and how they're playing -- especially when it has this type of impact."