By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Washington state regulators have warned a Roman Catholic bishop that his diocese risks running afoul of state campaign finance laws if he follows through with a planned fund-raising effort opposing same-sex marriage on the November ballot.
State law prohibits organizations, including churches, from raising money from individuals to give to political campaigns, said Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for the state's Public Disclosure Commission.
"It's not because it's a church. It's because it's not a stand-alone individual," Anderson said on Thursday.
The commission was calling into question a recent letter from Bishop Joseph Tyson to Yakima-area pastors urging them to distribute donation envelopes to parishioners during the weekend of September 8-9.
The money would go to Preserve Marriage Washington, the campaign to defeat legalization of same-sex marriage on the state's November ballot.
The Democratic-controlled Washington Legislature voted this year to legalize same-sex marriage, and Governor Chris Gregoire, a Democrat and a Catholic, signed the measure into law during in February.
But the law was blocked from taking effect as scheduled in June when opponents submitted a petition for a repeal referendum on the November ballot. Referendum 74, subsequently certified as having collected enough signatures to qualify, asks voters to approve or reject the gay marriage bill enacted in February.
Tyson's letter instructs parish priests not to open the envelopes once they are turned back in, but to place them into a pre-addressed security envelope to be mailed directly to Preserve Marriage, according to local media reports.
"It's not our envelope," Tyson told local television station KIMA-TV. "We're not collecting the money, and we're not taking the money. Preserve Marriage Washington is doing that. We're going to follow the state law."
But Anderson said she was not swayed.
"That can't happen under our state law," she told Reuters. "It doesn't matter if they haven't looked at the contributions."
The commission has not heard directly from the diocese, but it sent Tyson a letter Thursday outlining the relevant campaign finance rules, Anderson said.
LETTER OF THE LAW
Under state law, only individuals are allowed to collect donations and give them to a political campaign, and in doing so must take down each donor's name, address, occupation and employer. If the donation is above $25, that information must then be made public by the campaign.
The diocese may pass out campaign donation envelopes to its parishioners, but it cannot collect them or act in any way as an intermediary, Anderson said. The church is free to create a political action committee to raise money, and could then transfer donations to other campaigns as it sees fit, she said.
Organizations found to have violated state campaign finance laws can be fined up to $10,000 for each transgression.
Several diocese officials reached by Reuters said they were not authorized to comment. Tyson did not immediately return telephone calls.
Wake Forest University divinity professor James Dunn said the diocese's fund-raising plans could also threaten its federal tax-exempt status as a non-political religious organization.
Handing out donation envelopes for a political campaign in church "is in blatant violation of the spirit of the law," Dunn said, adding that the Internal Revenue Service has not strictly enforced that law in recent years.
Six states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage, but majority support at the polls in November would make Washington the first state to legalize gay matrimony by popular vote.
Preserve Marriage Washington has raised more than $471,000 for its campaign against gay marriage, Public Disclosure Commission records show.
Same-sex marriage supporters under the Washington United for Marriage campaign have raised more than $6 million, including $2.5 million donated by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. (Editing by Steve Gorman)