An array of religious organizations, citing First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom, is rallying to defend the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in its court dispute involving an abortion rights group's challenge to the Roman Catholic Church's tax-exempt status.
"Some of us see this as the most sharply defined case involving religious freedom that we've seen in the last 10 years, and that's saying a lot," said Michael J. Woodruff, director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, an evangelical Protestant group based in Falls Church.
Woodruff said he spent hours last week "trying to line up those that would join us" in challenging rulings by U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Carter in New York. Woodruff said yesterday that he expects to file such a brief Friday on behalf of other religious groups.
He said various groups, from Baptists to Mormons, from the National Council of Churches to the National Association of Evangelicals, have expressed interest.
Immediately at issue is a contempt-of-court order issued by Carter against the bishops conference and its action arm, the U.S. Catholic Conference, for refusing to turn over documents sought by the Abortion Rights Mobilization (ARM), which has sued the Internal Revenue Service in a challenge to the conferences' tax-exempt status.
On May 8, Carter issued his order and levied a $50,000-a-day fine against each conference, but he stayed the order for a week the next day. On May 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals continued the stay. Further arguments are expected before that court in late June.
The suit, filed nearly six years ago by the New York-based ARM and 20 other "pro-choice" groups, charges that the Roman Catholic Church has violated federal tax law by supporting political candidates who oppose abortion.
On Feb. 26, Carter granted the plaintiffs' request to subpoena a massive list of church documents. It ranged from office files on the church's national "pro-life" program to any sermon or church bulletin from 19,000 parishes nationwide "that may be relevant if it deals with abortion."
The bishops contended that the sweeping subpoena was an unconstitutional intrusion in church affairs. But, because the church is not a party to the suit, the bishops sought to gain a legal platform for their argument by notifying Carter that they would defy the subpoena, forcing the issue into the appeals court where constitutional questions could be aired.
Carter, calling the move a "travesty of the court process" and a "wasteful charade," then issued his contempt order.
The bishops "had no other way in which to affect the outcome of the case," said the Rev. Dean Kelley, a United Methodist minister and church-state expert for the National Council of Churches. "It was the only way they could get a review of the court's jurisdiction."
Branding the subpoena a "generalized fishing expedition," Kelley said the case affects "all taxpayers." If the precedent stands, he added, "I could sue the treasury . . . and get a court order to rummage through your bank account . . . . "
The American Jewish Congress, which has expressed sharp disagreement with Roman Catholic efforts to outlaw abortion, called the contempt fines "an abuse of judicial power" and the bishops' defiance "understandable" under the circumstances.
The congress joined other religious groups in requesting a full hearing of legal issues raised by the case, including:
*Whether the ARM can legally challenge the church's tax exemption.
*Whether the government can revoke a church's tax exemption for supporting political candidates.
*Whether the church has a constitutional right to protect internal documents from forced disclosure.
Kelley and others have said Carter's rulings are inconsistent with a 1984 case in which the Supreme Court held that black parents had no legal standing to bring a suit challenging the tax exemption of a private school that they claimed discriminated against blacks.
ARM President Lawrence Lader cited as precedent a 1964 case in which Christian Century, a liberal ecumenical weekly, lost its tax exemption for several years because of an editorial endorsing Lyndon B. Johnson for president.
Of the subpoena, Lader said, "We want to go to trial, and we can't go without the documents."
Joseph L. Conn of Americans United, which favors church-state separation, said, "We are very concerned about the church-state issue" raised by the subpoena. "We don't want to see the courts rummaging around in church affairs."
Kelley said "a church's business and function" is "to try to preach and persuade people to do that which they see as moral, and that should not have any effect on their tax exemption."