Churches and electoral activity

It’s hypocritical to denounce right-wing churches for their overt support of a political candidate, while churches we like make a more subtle or cheeky endorsement of a candidate, innocent, intentional or not. I bring this up because Unitarian Universalist minister, Prairie Star district staffer and blogger Phil Lund (Phil’s Little Blog on the Prairie) considered a failing, fictional test-case church website where the congregation clearly loved a candidate in 2004. (And hasn’t updated their blog since.)

To recap, a nonprofit organization like a church can engage in political advocacy and even a limited amount of lobbying, despite false folk-wisdom to the contrary. And I think it should do rather more than less. But involvement in a political campaign is verboten. Don’t support candidates for public office and not oppose them. Don’t use coded language to suggest one candidate over another. I’d go so far — to be safe — to avoid slogan language embedded within sermon titles, and I’d certainly not change advertising (including the church website) to imitate a campaign before an election. I would not have, for instance, begun to use the typefaces Gotham (Obama) or Optima (McCain) after the conventions. If that meant not calling a sermon “Hope” until the Sunday after election day, so be it. (If rather cautious.)

But the IRS isn’t very helpful in defining what isn’t allowed. Some of the decisions would be situational.What might be fine now — and another reason to mention it now — might cause trouble in September 2012. Or a bit of church phrasing used now and consistently would be OK even if a campaign coincidentally used it in a campaign later. (But I’m not a lawyer, and that’s not legal advice.)

Instead, let me point you to two good sources of information.  One is from the UUA. Another, more detailed resource, is from the Alliance for Justice (and if you are near D.C., they offer very good courses.)

And more about permitted political — non-electoral — activity later.

11 Replies to “Churches and electoral activity”

  1. Reminds me of the time that I had to remove campaign literature for the Democrat running for congress from the religious pamphlet rack before the service. Even after explaining that we could lose our tax-exempt status as a congregation, folks could not understand. Fortunately, a lawyer in the congregation backed me up.

  2. Does the Citizens United decision have any effect on this question? Aren’t churches typically incorporated? and haven’t “free-speech rights” been extended to corporations on the basis of the CU decision, allowing them to spend money directly for or against candidates (but still not to donate to candidates’ campaigns, as I understand it)?

    Also (at the risk of being a little tangential), the last time we talked about tax exempt status for churches, there was, it seems, a distinction drawn between churches themselves and other nonprofits. I still don’t understand why that is, and why churches cannot be lumped in a single nonprofit category.

  3. These matters haven’t been run through the courts yet, but, the IRS rule in question is distinct for non-profits.

    Difference between churches and other non-profits. See the First Amendment.

  4. Problem with Churches and Politics is the politics turns on the Church; both doctrine and community. That’s the great lesson Shia Islam learned from Iran and why Ayatollah Sistani so adament on keeping Turbans from holding office. Also why Sistani’s recordings are the most popular of any religous figure in Iran today.

  5. So, politicians have decided that tax-exempt religious institutions cannot talk about politics for decades. Now, can we reverse this same reasoning and forbid politicians from talking about religion or lose their government campaign funding?

  6. Don’t be sloppy Larry: what’s banned is electoral activity, not political activity. Which, too, in part is why I think Bill’s comment before yours is hyperbolic and over-reaching. I can’t take it as a serious critique of American systems.

  7. Sorry about that Scott. What I was trying to get at facetiously is the ultimate question. Why is it in the government’s interest to prevent religious bodies from endorsing candidates or parties by threatening the loss of tax exemption if they do?

    This tax code dates from 1954 according to sources on line, relatively recent in U.S. history, and was initially aimed at churches with a few other organizations possible. Later it was expanded to include other kinds of tax exempt organizations. For centuries in this nation churches could be involved in electoral activity without the IRS threatening them. Why in 1954 did we change the IRS code? Perhaps it is an area for further research

  8. Scott: I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be difficult. I don’t see why the First Amendment makes a difference here. I was going to elaborate, but decided I was hijacking the thread. I’ll take it up on my own blog.

  9. We had a kerfluffle in our church last fall, after the elections, but before the Republicans took the majority of the house. The minister encouraged everyone to pressure their Democratic incumbants to vote for a key legislation the minister favored, basically (my interpretation) before the bad guys hit office. I thought this was too political and said so, but it wasn’t advocating voting for a certain candidate, so by your rules, would be ok.

    To me the issue was one of welcoming; Democrats welcomed here, moderates/conservatives (politically, not religiously) aren’t. For a church trying to grow and having covenant about Beloved Community, it wasn’t modeling what we say we want.

    why are we not growing? because we limit some UU churches to a narrow range of political thinking, even when we say we are welcoming.

  10. I don’t buy the political-alliance-makes-for-bad-growth line. There are several high-level bad habits Unitarian Universalists have that have to pass Occam’s razor before we get there, such as a culture ambivalent to evangelism and confusing and ambiguous public theology. Indeed, a politically focused church could grow. In which case our muddled idea of welcome also gets in the way at a high level.

    As for what the minister said: it is probably lobbying, and so is OK (per the IRS) in a limited amount. That is: appeals to members of an organization to contract legislators respecting the outcome of legislation. Only probably? It’s not to hard to shape the message just outside the rule of lobbying — such as billboards addressed to lawmakers about legislation; or education about a subject closely tied to legislation — and the lines can be pretty thin.

  11. Scott – I don’t want to thread-hijack here, but I will ask a followup question about the differences between religious and non-religious non-profits.

    Why should religious non-profits be exempt from the minimal openness, transparency, and accountability requirements that we impose on non-religious non-profits? After treating religious and non-religious the same sounds a lot more fair.

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