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Bishop: Election letter was matter of principle

Bishop Ronald Gainer said Monday that he wrote a letter stressing the church's stance on abortion to the Lexington Diocese because he felt that too many Catholic politicians had misstated key Catholic teachings.

On Sunday, 64 parishes in the Lexington Diocese were read a letter written by Gainer that stressed that issues about the sanctity of life — including abortion — are morally more important than other political issues.

The letter, Gainer said Monday, was in response to several letters to the editor and statements made by Catholic politicians on a key Catholic document related to voting and citizenship.

"I mention no party and mention no candidates," Gainer said of his letter. "Our policy is that we are non-partisan but principled."

Gainer's letter is just one example of an increasingly intense debate on what non-profits, particularly churches, can say during an election.

David Masci, a senior fellow at the non-partisan Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said the rules regarding political speech and non-profits are relatively clear. As long as a candidate or a political party isn't mentioned, it doesn't violate the IRS ban that prohibits ministers from making endorsements from the pulpit.

Churches can talk about a political issue, such as abortion, as long as they don't say they are for or against a particular candidate.

"A pastor can say, 'I urge you to remember our principles when you vote,'" Masci said.

Gainer's letter conforms to the law because it talks about issues, but mentions no candidate or party.

Although churches have grumbled for years about the ban on political endorsements, it wasn't until recently that some churches across the country have challenged the rule.

In late September, 33 churches from around the country openly endorsed candidates. Called the Pulpit Initiative and organized by the conservative legal group the Alliance Defense Fund, the churches have challenged the IRS to come after them and yank their non-profit status.

But some say some churches have gone too far even if they don't violate the IRS prohibition against endorsing a candidate or party.

At the Lafayette Church of the Nazarene on Rosemont Garden, a sign in front of the church reads: "Will you vote for a candidate who supports killing babies in their mother's womb?"

Stacy Smith, a Lexington woman who drives past the church nearly every day, said she purposely tries to distract her son, who is in first grade, every time they drive past the sign. But a classmate must have read it.

"On Saturday, he asked me if Barack Obama killed babies," Smith said. Her son doesn't understand what abortion is, which has made it difficult for Smith and her husband to explain what his classmate was talking about.

A phone message left at the church by the Herald-Leader was not returned.

Gainer's letter to area Catholics reminded voters that there are lots of issues to consider when choosing a candidate. But the issue of the sacredness of human life including abortion is "the paramount issue of our time," the letter said.

Gainer said that many Catholics have said they can't base their vote on a single issue. But his letter goes on to say that if someone broke into your home, held a scalpel to your throat and threatened to kill you, "I suspect you would in that moment become a single-issue person ... Many of the unborn are precisely in that situation," Gainer wrote.

Gainer said he realizes not everyone in the diocese agrees with him.

"I would be naive to think that I wouldn't get push-back," he said.

Gainer said the church has long been a force for change and its voice should be heard.

"If you look at the 20th century, the great movements have come from the church. Where did the push come to change segregation? It came from the church," Gainer said. "We have a right to raise our voices in the public square."