Ben Johnson


Law prof backs courageous bishop: Legally, it’s ‘fine’ him to tell Catholics to ‘vote yes’ for life

Ben Johnson

ORLANDO, FLORIDA, July 2, 2012, ( – Bishop John Noonan of Orlando turned some heads when he concluded a video message to the faithful last week by telling them to “vote yes” on two proposed state constitutional amendments this fall – but a legal expert says the bishop is well within his rights. 

In an 11-minute-long message delivered to the region’s Roman Catholic churches last week, Bishop Noonan charged voters, “Let us vote responsibly in the elections in November and particularly ‘yes’” on two amendments that reflect the Church’s position on abortion and religious liberty.

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Amendment 6 would cut off all state funding for abortion except in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. The pro-life measure finds strong support well outside the Catholic community.

Amendment 8 would allow state funding to be used for religious institutions

Former state representative Juan Zapata, who helped craft the amendment, said a strict interpretation of the state constitution would ban a “long and diverse” list of public-private partnerships that help the needy such as “food pantries for low income families, housing assistance programs, foster care agencies, substance abuse treatment and recovery programs, pre-natal and pregnancy care, prison ministries, as well as religiously affiliated universities and hospitals.”

Among the bishop’s opponents on Amendment 8 is Liz Murad, a former Franciscan nun-turned-atheist who now belongs to Humanists of the Treasure Coast. 

Steven Willis, a professor and tax law expert at the University of Florida, said the bishop’s directly worded statement “is not remotely close” to violating IRS statutes. “It is fine,” he said.

A 1954 law championed by future President Lyndon Johnson threatened to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches that openly supported candiadtes for office. But the law leaves churches free to advocate for or against ballot issues – and to highlight candidates’ positions on issues vital to their faith.

As long as such political work does not constitute 10-to-15 percent of a church’s activities, it should pose no legal jeopardy, Willis said.

Both measures must reach at least 60 percent of the vote this November to be adopted.

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