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Catholic Bishops To Go To Supreme Court on Contempt Ruling

June 5, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops will appeal to the Supreme Court a contempt citation for refusing to release records to abortion-rights groups challenging the church’s tax-free status, a spokesman says.

In a 2-to-1 decision Thursday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a May 1986 ruling citing the United States Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops with civil contempt.

A spokesman for the Conference of Bishops expressed disappointment, saying that at stake was ″the right of all churches and religious groups to express their views on public issues without harassment by groups which disagree with them or punitive action on the part of the government.″

″We are hopeful that we will be vindicated by the Supreme Court in this important case involving free speech and religious liberty,″ the spokesman, Robert Wonderly, said in Washington.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Carter imposed $100,000-a-day fines on the bishops’ groups after they balked at submitting documents on their political activities and relationship with the Internal Revenue Service.

The fines, which were stayed during the appeal, are not to be imposed for 20 days. The bishops’ lawyer, Mark E. Chopko, said he had not seen the court’s opinion but that the delay would give him time to consider an appeal.

Carter’s ruling came in a 6-year-old lawsuit by 22 pro-choice groups against the treasury secretary and the IRS commissioner. The suit argues that the Roman Catholic Church should be denied tax-exempt status because its activities against legalized abortion are political.

″Obviously we think its a very important decision in terms of separation of church and state,″ said Lawrence Lader, president of Abortion Rights Mobilization, the lead plaintiff.

″The wall of separation has been broken down by religious groups using tax-exempt money to attack political candidates. They’ve been doing it for many years.″

″We’re delighted that Judge Carter’s opinion has been upheld,″ said Marshall Beil, attorney for the pro-abortion groups. ″We hope the church will comply with the rule of law and supply the subpoenaed documents.″

The plaintiffs had demanded church records in 1983 as evidence to prove their case. After years of delay on procedural objections, the bishops said they would appeal the entire issue on grounds of religious freedom.

An angry Carter found the bishops in contempt, saying they had ″willfully misled the court and the plaintiffs″ and ″made a travesty of the court process.″

The bishops appealed his ruling and contended the abortion-rights groups lacked standing to bring the lawsuit.

The appeals court made no definitive ruling on the issue of standing but said the lower court was within its authority in citing the bishops with contempt.

Judge Richard J. Cardamone dissented, saying the court should review whether Carter had jurisdiction in the tax-status suit.

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