How Churches Can Mix Religion And Politics Legally
By Bob Corbin
Is it permissible for a minister or other member of the clergy to endorse a candidate from the pulpit? No. To speak on political issues of interest? That depends on whether the issue could be tied to backing a particular candidate.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Political Life reviews these and other questions in a 22-page brochure that is posted on-line. Here are some of the questions and answers Pew explores:
Q. Why are there restrictions on churches’ participation in the political process?
A. The Internal Revenue Service code prohibits intervention in political campaigns by all organizations that are exempt from federal income tax, not just churches. This measure was adopted in 1954.
Q. Are churches singled out by this prohibition?
A. No. All organizations recognized as exempt from federal income tax under section 501 (c) (3) of the code are subject to this provision. This includes such groups as schools, hospitals, social services agencies and scientific organizations.
Q. What political activities are prohibited? What about voter guides and voter registration?
A. Churches can’t participate in a political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for elected office. This includes providing or soliciting financial support, distributing biased voter education materials or leading a biased voter registration drive.
Churches may provide unbiased guides aimed at educating voters, such as a compilation of candidates’ positions, based on their responses to questions posed, or a neutral compilation of their positions on issues. These guides should include all candidates for an office, cover a broad range of issues, and show no bias in issues presented.
Churches may conduct voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives provided they are not biased for or against any candidate, political party or voting position. They should not be presented in cooperation with any political party or target members of a party. Communications about these drives should be limited to urging people to register or to vote.
Q. May churches distribute legislators’ voting records?
A. Yes, under certain circumstances. A compilation of voting records of all members of Congress (or other legislative body) on a wide range of issues is permissible, provided it contains no editorial comment or indication of approval or disapproval.
Q. What about churches distributing voter education materials prepared by a candidate, political party or political action committee?
A. No, since these materials are considered inherently biased, distribution would violate the political campaign intervention.
Q. Can churches discuss the issues during election campaigns?
A. Yes. They need not restrict or alter discussion of issues that are not linked to support for candidates, or opposition to them. The fact that candidates may align themselves to one side or another of an issue does not restrict organizations in discussing that, but they may not communicate preferences for or against a particular candidate.
Q. What about lobbying?
A. Lobbying is permitted but limited. Churches whose lobbying efforts constitute between 5 and 15 percent of their total activities during the year will not jeopardize their tax-exempt status.
Q. Are churches permitted to participate in referendums, amendments and other ballot initiatives?
A. Yes. These are classified as lobbying activities and are only subject to those limitations.
Q. What about the political activities of clergy or other church leaders?
A. The political activities of pastors or leaders acting as individuals are not restricted. Clergy may endorse or oppose candidates and otherwise participate in political campaigns, but they should take steps to insure their actions are not imputed to their churches. For example, undertaking political activities, endorsements or oppositions to candidates during worship services or other church functions, or in church publications, is not legal. In addition, political activity is also illegal if the leader indicates he or she is acting on behalf of the church or if church funds are used to support political activity.
Q. Is it legal for candidates to appear in pulpits during worship services?
A. It depends. Such appearances may violate the law if the clergy endorses the candidate, takes up a collection for the candidate’s benefit, invites only one candidate for an office to address the congregation or allows other demonstrations of support. The IRS has indicated it is permissible for a church to invite all candidates for an office to address the congregation on successive Sundays and during worship services if each candidate has an equal opportunity to speak and field questions. The same rules apply if the candidate is a member of the clergy.
Q. May churches sponsor candidate forums?
A. Yes, when they are unbiased forums or debates for the purpose of educating voters. To ensure the event is unbiased, a church should not indicate its views on the issues discussed, comment on responses or ask the candidates to endorse the organization’s positions.
This article “How Churches Can Mix Religion And Politics Legally” by Bob Corbin is excerpted from the Church Central Newsletter, Sept 2008.