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Churches participating in elections?

Churches, taxes, and political participation

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
A GUIDE FOR RELIGIOUS LEADERS

By
Americans United For Separation Of Church And State
518-C Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
www.au.org
americansunited@au.org

(Received April 6, 2008, posted here 4/7/080.

Religious leaders frequently have questions about the appropriate role of religion in politics and what activities houses of worship may undertake in the political process. This guide, based on information provided by two tax attorneys who are experts in non-profit law, is designed to answer some of the common questions about this subject.

Churches and other non-profit organizations that hold 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status must abide by Internal Revenue Service regulations barring any involvement in partisan politics. The blanket prohibition concerns only races for public office, not issues. Religious leaders may speak out from the pulpit or in other forums on moral and political issues. However, churches and pastors may not endorse candidates for public office or advise congregants to vote for or against certain candidates. Federal tax law in this area is quite strict, and the IRS has indicated that it follows a “zero tolerance” policy toward violations.

Q.        What types of activities are prohibited under the IRS code?

A.        Endorsements by houses of worship or religious leaders of candidates and statements of opposition to candidates are strictly forbidden and can result in revocation of a house of worship’s tax-exempt status. (However, clergy may endorse or oppose candidates as individuals in forums outside the church, or work on behalf of candidates during their personal time.)

In addition, houses of worship may not contribute money to candidates, solicit contributions on their behalf, or donate to candidates’ political action committees. Religious organizations may not set up their own PACs.

 Q.         What constitutes an endorsement or opposition to a candidate?
 A. Prohibited activities may include letters of endorsement or opposition printed on congregation letterhead, house of worship-sponsored distribution of campaign literature, clergy advising congregants to vote for or against candidates from the pulpit, the display of campaign signs on congregation property, and other activities that could be construed as endorsing or opposing a candidate. 

Q.        Does the IRS really enforce this law? 

A.        Yes. The IRS regularly issues statements reminding churches and other non-profits to stay out of partisan politics, and the federal tax agency does not hesitate to penalize organizations that violate this standard. 

Q.        What is the penalty if a house of worship violates this standard? 

A.        Penalties can include loss of tax-exempt status or financial penalties imposed on congregations. 

Q.        Has this ever happened to a house of worship? 

A.        Yes. The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., lost is tax-exempt status in 1995 after the IRS determined it had violated federal tax law by publishing a full-page ad in USA Today in late October of 1992 advising people that voting for presidential candidate Bill Clinton was a sin. The church sued in federal court to regain its tax-exempt status, but lost in federal district court. A federal appellate court later upheld the ruling denying the church tax-exempt status.

Q.        What types of political activities can houses of worship engage in? 

A.        There are many. For example, houses of worship may sponsor voter registration drives. They may encourage voting and even help people get to the polls on Election Day. They may not tell people who to vote for. 

Houses of worship can also sponsor non-partisan candidate forums. Religious groups may sponsor forums at which all legally qualified candidates for a given office are invited to appear. The questioning should be non-partisan in nature and broad, covering a range of issues, not just moral or social issues of concern to the congregation. 

Houses of worship may send questionnaires to candidates and ask them where they stand on issues. However, before distributing the answers, religious organizations should make sure the answers are accurate and that the questionnaire covers a wide range of issues. Questionnaires should be sent to all candidates, and the organization should not compare the candidates’ answers to its preferred position on issues. 

Q.        Can religious leaders speak out on political or moral issues? 

A.        Yes. The IRS prohibition on partisan politicking concerns individuals seeking public office, not issues. Religious leaders may take stands on political issues such as abortion, gay rights, gun control, health care and many others. They may also support or oppose ballot referenda. 

Q.        What about voter guides? Can they ever be distributed in houses of worship? 

A.        Houses of worship should be extremely wary of voter guides produced by outside organizations. When a guide has been produced by an outside organization, religious leaders have no way of knowing if the answers are accurate or if the guide has been intentionally slanted to favor a certain candidate. Also, some organizations that produce guides hold a different type of tax-exempt status, a status that permits them to engage in some political activities that congregations are not permitted to take part in. 

It means nothing for an organization to claim that its voter guides have been approved by its own attorneys. The only question that matters is if IRS attorneys would approve of the guide.  

Remember, if a voter guide produced by an outside group is determined to be partisan in character and is distributed in a house of worship, the IRS has the legal right to penalize the house of worship even though it did not produce the guide. 

Q.        Exactly what may houses of worship do? 

1. Discuss public policy issues.
2. Sponsor non-partisan voter registration and encourage voting as good civic behavior
3.  Sponsor candidate forums as long as all leading candidates are invited and a broad range of issues are discussed.
4. Urge congregants to communicate with candidates and make their concerns known to them.
5. Comment on incumbent elected officials not currently running for re-election or for another office.

Q. What are houses of worship prohibited from doing? 

1. Issuing statements endorsing or opposing candidates.
2. Donating money to a candidate.
3. Offering office space to one candidate and refusing it to another.
4. Sponsoring rallies for candidates in churches.
5. Distributing biased or limited issue voter guides.
Should churches support candidates for election?

from the Presbyterian Washington Office

dated 2/7/02; posted here on 2-8-02

Congress now has a bill that would remove the IRS regulation against houses of worship supporting or opposing particular candidates during an election.

Below is a comment from our Constitutional Services department in reference to the issue as well as an article by Laura Goodstein. This is a newly re-emerging issue. Contact your member of the House with your opinion on this.

=================================

From Mark Tammen -- Constitutional Services of GA-PC(USA)


"Since this Bill has come into being since the General Assembly last summer, I do not believe there is a GA action on this specific point. The last time the General Assembly dealt with this particular issue, we were quite uncomfortable with this sort of relationship."

 

In the 1988 Statement, "God Alone is Lord of the Conscience," the Assembly opined:

"We recognize that speaking out on issues will sometimes constitute implicit support or opposition to particular candidates or parties, where policy and platform differences are clearly drawn. Since such differences are the vital core of the political process, church participation should not be curtailed on that account; but we believe it is generally unwise and imprudent for the church explicitly to support or oppose specific candidates, except in unusual circumstances." (p. 52)

Therefore, I suspect if the Assembly were asked, based on the last sentence quoted above, would likely not support HR 2357.

Mark Tammen

=================================

Churches on Right Seek Right to Back Candidates

February 3, 2002

By Laurie Goodstein

As far back as the Revolutionary War, America's religious leaders have taken to their pulpits to galvanize their followers on the political issues of the day from taxation to slavery to abortion.

But since 1954, when Senator Lyndon B. Johnson pushed a little-noticed law through Congress, ministers have been barred from preaching about political candidates. Under the law, churches are prohibited from endorsing or opposing candidates or risk being stripped of their tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. Nevertheless, the law is frequently flouted, and the I.R.S. rarely intervenes.

Now religious conservatives are starting a campaign to remove the prohibition. A Republican member of Congress from North Carolina, Walter B. Jones Jr., decided last year to make it his signature issue.

The cause has been taken up by more than 12 religious conservative lobbying groups and is becoming a frequent topic on Christian talk shows on radio and television.

Mr. Jones's bill, the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, would "permit churches and other houses of worship to engage in political campaigns." Although it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, the legislation, H.R. 2357, has gathered 112 co-sponsors, all but four of them Republicans. Among them are the majority whip, Tom DeLay, and the majority leader, Dick Armey, both of Texas.

"Many churches and pastors frankly don't speak out on the moral issues of the day for the fear they may be regarded by the I.R.S. as too political," said Colby M. May, Washington director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which works on religious cases. "You've got to ask, `Why are we putting our I.R.S., which is designed to collect revenue for the general treasury, in the position of being the speech police?' "

Opponents say the bill is little more than a strategy by leaders of the religious right like Pat Robertson, the Christian broadcaster, to mobilize conservative churches on behalf of conservative candidates. Mr. Robertson recently had Mr. Jones as a guest on "The 700 Club," his television show, and encouraged his viewers to contact heir legislators to support the bill.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, defended the current law, calling it "a good thing for the church and a good thing for our political system." "If we change it," Mr. Lynn said, "we're going to see politicians running around seeking support of Churches and hoping that they can curry favor with those churches by promising them money and favors."

The law dates from 1954, when Mr. Johnson added an amendment to a revenue bill that prohibited all groups with a nonprofit, or 501(c)3, tax-exempt status from endorsing or opposing candidates. It passed by unanimous consent.

Historians have said Mr. Johnson intended to silence two groups connected to the Hunt family, which opposed his re-election. But because houses of worship also have the exempt designation, the law also applied to them.

"Johnson took away the freedom of our preachers, priests and rabbis," Mr. Jones said in an interview.

Nevertheless, years went by and preachers endorsed politicians from the pulpit with no repercussions. But in the last two decades, conservative and evangelical churches have become increasingly involved in campaigns, drawing more scrutiny by the revenue service.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a liberal watchdog group, began sending churches warnings about the prohibition on partisan politics and reported several churches, accusing them of overstepping the law.

On the talk shows, Mr. Jones and others have accused the revenue service of biased enforcement, investigating just conservative, predominantly white churches while ignoring liberal, predominantly black churches that routinely invite candidates to appear in their pulpits.

The I.R.S., which declined to comment, has penalized extremely few churches. In the case that received the most attention, the conservative Church at Pierce Creek in Conklin, N.Y., near Binghamton, had its tax- exempt status revoked for sponsoring a full-page advertisement that opposed Bill Clinton's presidential candidacy. Although Mr. Jones's bill has become a pet cause for the religious right, with the Rev. Jerry Falwell making it the centerpiece of a recent fund-raising letter, it is unclear how many members of the clergy will promote it. Even one minister whose church endured a four-year investigation that was subsequently dropped said that although churches should be allowed to endorse candidates, they should avoid it.

"I just think the religious entities of America need to keep their prophetic voice," said the Rev. Ed Young, senior minister of the Second Baptist Church in Houston. "And you lose that if you send money to politicians or openly support them during an election season."

 
 

GA actions ratified (or not) by  the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.
 

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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.

 

Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.

 

John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.

 

John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.

 

Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!

 

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