By K. Hollyn Hollman
I get the bulk of my news by radio on my commute to work. Lately, there has been a larger than usual correlation between what I hear on my way to work and what I do when I get there. News reports of presidential candidates speaking to religious audiences, and particularly from the pulpit, are rampant. Callers want to know why it is happening and what is being done about it.
Based on the biographies of this crop of candidates (from both parties), it may be natural that they would be comfortable framing political priorities in faith language and speaking in houses of worship. Still, the practice of politicians filling pulpits during campaign season raises good questions that should be considered carefully if churches are to avoid pitfalls.
There are legal issues, though they are not insurmountable. Houses of worship, like other nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations, are prohibited from intervening in campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office. In short, such entities, which receive favorable tax treatment, including receipt of tax-deductible donations, should not be used to tell people how to vote. The resources of nonprofits should be used for the educational, charitable, or religious purposes for which they are organized. Other laws govern campaigns and contributions to them. Nonprofits should not be used as a way around those laws.
The IRS regulations that prohibit endorsing or opposing candidates and thus protect tax-exempt purposes, however, are not intended to stifle the religious freedom of congregations and other religious entities or to prevent individuals from being involved in campaigns. Protections for religious freedom ensure that houses of worship and members of religious communities have the right to participate fully in public debates.
Those competing interests are explicitly recognized in the guidance issued by the IRS to explain the ban on electioneering. For example, the guidance notes that churches can have candidates speak at sponsored events either as a candidate or in an individual capacity (as a public figure, congregant, etc.), with guidelines that address each situation. A wealth of information on the risks of church electioneering, including a link to the guidelines, is available on the issues page at the BJC Web site.
As the recently reported IRS investigation of the United Church of Christ (UCC) demonstrates, the difficulties are in the details. According to information from the denomination, the IRS investigation arises out of a speech by Sen. Barack Obama to its national meeting in 2007. The UCC has been aggressive in getting its story out and demonstrating a number of factors that support its side of the story. He was invited long before his presidential candidacy; he has long been a member of a UCC church; his participation was part of an anniversary program featuring 60 members of the church; a disclaimer on electioneering preceded his speech; and campaign activity was excluded from the premises.
Concerns cited by the IRS involved Web site links to news stories and conflicting references to the fact that the speaker, in addition to being a public figure and member of the church, is a candidate for the presidency. In recent years, the IRS has reiterated its willingness to enforce its rules, as well as providing more guidance about possible events far less explicit than a pastor’s endorsement from the pulpit. Thus, even where one may have a good legal case, the costs can be high.
Quite apart from legal issues is the inescapable risk that an appearance by a candidate (even speaking as a “non-candidate”) in the pulpit aligns a house of worship with that candidate or a particular political party. This risk is plain, regardless of the candidate’s party affiliation, whether a church is well-known as having a particular political leaning or involvement in a political debate, and whether the candidate is a former preacher or a first-time pulpit speaker. It is a risk to the house of worship itself in that it may divide its members and do damage to its reputation in the larger community. While polls indicate a majority of voters want a candidate of some faith (and thus presumably appreciate seeing them in a house of worship), concerns for the church may weigh heavily against inviting candidates into the pulpit.