On the Santa Fe Trail: Americans United Urges IRS to Investigate Partisan Politicking by Catholic Archdiocese in New Mexico

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, December 2002 | Go to article overview

On the Santa Fe Trail: Americans United Urges IRS to Investigate Partisan Politicking by Catholic Archdiocese in New Mexico


Boston, Rob, Church & State


People attending Sunday mass at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in San Juan Pueblo, N.M., Oct. 27 heard an unusual sermon.

Instead of ruminations on the nature of sin or an explanation of church teaching, congregants got a lecture on which candidate to support for governor. The Rev. Terry Brennan backed Republican John Sanchez and wielded a flier from the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico that attacked Democratic candidate Bill Richardson.

"I would say, yes, it's an endorsement," Brennan told the Albuquerque Journal days later. "We don't want someone who would take innocent life to be making laws or vetoing laws."

Brennan went on to tell the newspaper that he had explained to parishioners, "We have the opportunity to be bold and decisive and send a message and elect a candidate who will support life."

Then Brennan did something a lot of Catholic priests in the state did that Sunday: He passed out copies of the Right to Life flier to church members in the pews--even though the material was produced by an organization that has a political action committee that formally endorsed Sanchez. The fliers praised the GOP nominee, noting his "100% pro-life voting record," his support for "a ban on partial birth abortion" and his belief that "life begins at conception."

Richardson, the fliers asserted, "has voted for all pro-abortion bills and against all pro-life bills in the years he served in Congress from 1984-1997."

One church went even further. The Holy Child Parish in Tijeras added a paragraph to the flier reading, "Richardson's record shows a lack of respect for human life. As governor, he would not serve the people of New Mexico on the life issues any better than he did as a congressman."

Distribution of the pro-Sanchez material in church wasn't just a spontaneous action on the part of a few local priests. In fact, the anti-Richardson campaign was part of a well-coordinated strategy between Right to Life of New Mexico and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

The archdiocese sent the fliers to all 92 parishes in the area, urging them to distribute it. As the Albuquerque Journal reported, officials at the archdiocese undertook the action after a meeting between Archbishop Michael Sheehan and Dauneen Dolce, head of Right to Life of New Mexico.

In a Sept. 27 letter to local parishes, the Rev. Bennett J. Voorhies, chancellor of the archdiocese, noted that while the church may not endorse candidates, it may distribute voter guides. "Therefore, after discussion with Archbishop Sheehan, I am enclosing the voting record fact sheet on the gubernatorial candidates provided by the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico. You may distribute it as you see fit."

There was one glaring problem, however: What Right to Life of New Mexico provided was not an objective "voter guide" but rather literature clearly designed to promote Sanchez while discouraging votes for Richardson. Under the tax status it holds, the Right to Life group and its PAC can legally produce such partisan material. But houses of worship may not distribute it.

When word of the fliers got out, the situation quickly grew heated. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe issued a statement asserting that it was not the intent of the fliers to endorse a candidate.

"If the flier referred to ... was construed by anyone as the church's endorsement of a candidate, I apologize," Voorhies said in a press release.

Brennan also backed away from his claims that he had endorsed Sanchez.

"I never used the word `endorse' or any synonym for endorse," the priest insisted after a meeting with Archbishop Sheehan.

But Mark Oswald, an editor at the Journal, stood by the newspaper's characterization.

"After being asked twice, then that's where we have that direct quote, `I would say yes, it's an endorsement,'" Oswald said. …

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