This election year has seen unprecedented outreach to churches by the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns, and intensified political activity by the religious groups themselves. But some watchdogs for separation of church and state are concerned that congregations are violating the federal tax code, which restricts the political activities of certain nonprofits, including churches.
Here are some questions and answers about what houses of worship can and can’t do in the political arena:
Q: Why are there restrictions on churches and politics?
A: In 1954, the Internal Revenue Code was amended to prevent tax-exempt groups from campaigning on behalf of, or against, candidates. Churches are in this category. Lyndon B. Johnson, then a senator, introduced the change.
Q: What kind of activities are allowed under the federal code?
A: Churches can engage in a wide range of political activities, as long as the outreach does not involve campaigning for, or raising money for, a political party or candidate. They can distribute voter guides, run voter-registration drives, hold forums on public policy and invite politicians to speak to their congregations. However, they cannot endorse a candidate, and their political activity cannot be biased for or against a candidate, directly or indirectly.
Q: What constitutes a violation of these rules?
A: Churches would be in violation, for example, if they did not give equal speaking opportunities to political candidates for the same office, if they distributed voter guides that described a candidate’s position in a biased way, or if they indicated support for a candidate they had invited as a speaker. While church-state separation watchdogs often complain of inherent bias in faith-based voter guides or registration drives, it is ultimately up to the IRS to decide whether it rises to the level of a code violation.
Q: Do the restrictions apply to clergy as well?
A: No. As long as religious leaders make it clear that they are speaking on their own behalf and not representing their church, they can volunteer for campaigns and endorse a candidate. For example, James Dobson, head of the Christian nonprofit Focus on the Family, has said he will vote for President Bush, but took pains to make it clear his organization was not making an endorsement.
Q: What happens if a church violates the restrictions?
A: The IRS can revoke the church’s tax-exempt status for a period of time or can impose a tax on its political expenditures. However, the IRS rarely takes these actions. Melissa Rogers, a church-state expert and visiting professor at Wake Forest University Divinity School, said the IRS cautiously enforces the rules because it doesn’t want to be viewed as abusing its authority over religious groups.
Q: Who monitors the churches?
A: Anyone can file a complaint with the IRS, which decides whether to begin a formal inquiry. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Washington watchdog group, says it has filed just eight complaints with the IRS this year. Often, there is no direct evidence of bias, such as an improper endorsement, that meets the IRS standard for violations, Americans United says.
Q: Do religious groups support these restrictions?
A: Religious leaders differ on whether the rules are needed. Some are happy to keep partisan politics out of their congregations, while others feel the prohibitions squelch free speech. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm, says warnings from the IRS and church-state watchdogs have unfairly intimidated clergy, giving the impression that pastors can be punished for preaching their religious beliefs from the pulpit.
Sources: IRS, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (See Pew Forum guide, “Politics and the Pulpit”)