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PRIEST GROUP STRESSES POLITICS IN VALUES DEBATE

The Rev. Frank Pavone spent a lot of time in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio over the last several months.

Those key swing states in the 2004 presidential election are populated with many Catholic voters, and Pavone wanted to make sure they were registered and ready to vote their values.

The director of the national pro-life group Priests for Life is still touring the country. Sunday, he will be in Buffalo discussing the election results at a banquet with a local Catholic lay group that wants to build a giant arch monument here. He will speak at the Celebration of the Culture of Life and Civilization of Love at 6 p.m. at Salvatore's Italian Gardens in Lancaster.

During the election season, Pavone and other conservative religious leaders did the kind of work normally associated with political parties.

Priests for Life gave talks in churches and parish centers, organized conference calls with local get-out-the-vote leaders and set up transportation for elderly voters or others who could not drive to the polls.

"We were really getting into the nuts and bolts of this," Pavone said.

Some national faith leaders, however, worried that Priests for Life and other nonprofit groups ended up politicking on behalf of President Bush.

"There is concern that our (Catholic) tradition of social teaching includes a wide spectrum of issues, but from some church leaders it was very clear how pointed their direction was and how focused their attention was on a few issues to the neglect of others and that that was influential," said Sister Anne Curtis of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby.

The liberal pro-choice group Catholics for a Free Choice filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that Priests for Life -- as well as the nonprofit groups Catholic Answers and the Culture of Life Foundation, and the Denver and St. Louis archdioceses -- abused their tax-exempt status by using coded language to oppose the election of Sen. John F. Kerry.

While Pavone rarely mentioned names in his pre-election work, it was clear that he supported Bush, largely because the president opposes abortion, while Kerry supports abortion rights.

On the campaign trail, Pavone often said that "any candidate who supports abortion has no right to hold any kind of public office."

Priests for Life now includes on its Web site a "message of gratitude" to those who sacrificed their time and effort "to elect pro-life candidates."

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, contended that Priests for Life was one of several groups "flouting their tax-exempt status in their attempts to influence the outcome" of the election.

"By targeting a particular group for a get-out-the-vote effort in favor of particular candidates, Priests for Life engaged in an established example of illegal partisan efforts," Kissling said.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, a progressive evangelical magazine, accused prominent religious leaders such as the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell of crossing "all kinds of lines" in the presidential election.

"The IRS will decide whether they violated the law, but they certainly violated all sense of a balanced Christian ethic in terms of how you determine who you should vote for," Wallis said.

The partisanship issue has cut both ways. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People revealed in October that the IRS was reviewing its tax-exempt status because of statements critical of the Bush administration made by Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP board, last July.

In defending his statements, Bond said: "The NAACP has always been nonpartisan, but that doesn't mean we're noncritical. Only in an Orwellian world would honest disagreement be considered partisan, or honest differences called election interference."

Pavone insists that he and other members of Priests for Life did nothing wrong and were merely acting out their faith by speaking up about the issues in this election.

"If tomorrow the candidates or the parties swapped positions on these issues, our message would be exactly the same," Pavone said, adding that he has not received any inquiry from the IRS.

Pavone implored churches and the faithful to step up their activism -- as a matter of faith. "There is a paranoia in the church, fostered by the attorneys. They have this attitude that the IRS just can't wait to take away their tax-exempt status," he said. "No church has ever lost its tax exemption for speaking on the issues."

It is uncertain how much effect people such as Pavone had on the outcome of the election, but exit polls indicated that Bush carried the nationwide Catholic vote, 52 percent to 47 percent, over Kerry, the first Catholic presidential candidate in 44 years. (Bush was outpolled among Catholics in 2000 by Al Gore). The president did even better among Catholics in Florida and Ohio.

Those results were no surprise to Pavone, nor were the exit polls suggesting that "moral values" were the issue that mattered most for 22 percent of voters.

Moral values mattered to voters more than the economy, the war on terrorism or the war on Iraq, according to exit polls.

The moral values answer was largely interpreted by conservative Christians as a referendum on opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem-cell research.

"We have been seeing that unfold before our eyes," Pavone said. "I was so confident going into this election, because based on what I've seen going on in the grass roots, people are really energized by moral values."

But other religious leaders urged an interpretation of the moral values response beyond the three hot-button topics of abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem-cell research.

"There is a direct correlation between these three moral values and the wedge issues chosen by the Republican Party to turn out voters," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance. "Morally and religiously, two or three values cannot trump or replace all other values."

Voters could have been balloting based on their moral values by identifying other issues, such as their opposition to war or a concern about poverty, Wallis said.

Millions of people of faith, for example, thought that the war in Iraq was wrong and believed that it was a deeply religious issue, he said. "If I was one of those Christians for peace," he said, "I probably would have checked Iraq and not moral values, but for me that would have been a moral value."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com.

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