Diocese Pro-Referendum Flier Violates State Law

Groups are required to disclose their efforts to sway vote

October 17, 2006

Madison - The Catholic Diocese of Madison violated state campaign finance laws by distributing fliers telling people to vote for a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions without publicly disclosing its electioneering activity, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The flier by the diocese’s Office of Justice and Pastoral Outreach was distributed October 8 outside St. Maria Goretti Parish church in Madison, WDC said in a memo asking the State Elections Board to investigate the matter and take enforcement action.

Wisconsin law requires groups that spend more than $25 to support or oppose a state referendum to register with the board. Groups that raise or spend more than $1,000 in a calendar year to support or oppose a referendum are also required to file reports that detail their fundraising and spending.

There is nothing in state law that exempts religious organizations from registering with the state before they engage in political activities. Another religious organization that supports the proposed amendment, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, has registered with the board.

It is unclear how many church organizations or other pro-referendum groups have engaged in undisclosed campaigning in support of the marriage amendment as the Madison Diocese has done. But it appears the true amount being raised and spent by amendment supporters is woefully underreported. Vote Yes for Marriage, the electioneering arm of the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin, reported in July that it had raised $2,500 and spent only $547 in the first six months of 2006. Fair Wisconsin, the lead statewide group opposing the amendment, reported raising $1.3 million and spending $218,204 in the first six months of 2006.

Major supporters of the proposal, including the Family Research Institute and the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, have claimed they are exempt from having to report their fundraising and spending activities. That is because state law only requires groups to report fundraising and spending if they explicitly tell people how to vote on an issue or a candidate. These groups claim they can keep secret how much they raise and spend because they engage only in so-called educational efforts and do not directly tell people how to vote.

The next fundraising and spending reports must be filed at the end of this month.

MemoFlier

Memo

TO: Members of the State Elections Board

FROM: Mike McCabe, Executive Director, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

SUBJECT:Enforcement of state laws requiring registration of referenda groups

I am writing to inform you that the Democracy Campaign has obtained information leading us to believe that the Catholic Diocese of Madison violated state campaign finance laws by distributing fliers urging people to vote “yes” November 7 on the so-called marriage amendment without registering with the Elections Board.

It has come to our attention a flier was distributed October 8 outside St. Maria Goretti Parish in Madison. The pamphlet’s origin is the Office of Justice and Pastoral Outreach, Diocese of Madison.

Wisconsin law requires groups that spend more than $25 to support or oppose a state referendum to register with the board.

We also ask the board to determine whether the diocese’s express advocacy activities caused it to raise or spend more than $1,000 and if so, require the diocese to file reports detailing its fundraising and spending as required by law.

There is nothing in state law that exempts religious organizations from having to register with the state before engaging in political activities of this nature. In fact, another religious organization that supports the referendum, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, has registered with the board.

I urge the board to investigate this matter at its earliest convenience, require the diocese to comply with state laws governing its electioneering activities and impose fitting penalties.