Monday, January 07, 2008

Churches and Elections, plus... More Scare Tactics

A little over a year ago, I complained about the scare tactics being used during a local election to scare immigrants (not just illegal ones!) away from voting (with a small bit of follow-up buried in this post). As much as I wish it weren't the case, this seems to happen during pretty much every major election. While I don't intend to weigh in on every time this happens in the upcoming election cycle, I was surprised to hear of it again so soon in the current campaign, when I was directed to read this blog entry. The scare tactics this time don't involve immigrants, but instead pastors. Apparently, some anonymous letters are being sent to pastors who publicly endorsed a particular Republican candidate for President, warning them they their churches could lose their tax-exempt status.

But the writer of that blog, Allan R. Bevere, doesn't dwell on the evils of such scare tactics. Instead, he takes the opportunity to discuss the issues that the letters raise. Just what are pastors and churches allowed to do when it comes to discussing politics and elections? I touched upon this issue briefly a couple of years ago, but that was just to mention the issue. Bevere's blog actually goes into depth about what the law allows and what it doesn't. For example, although pastors are not allowed to directly say "I favor so-and-so" or "I oppose so-and-so" from a pulpit, they are allowed to say these things publicly in other venues, and their name can even be attached to their role as a pastor of a particular church for the sake of identification. Moreover, pastors are fully allowed to discuss issues of political importance from the pulpit, even though it might be implied by the discussion of these issues that they might favor a particular candidate. The key is that the pulpit endorsement may not be "direct" endorsement of a candidate.

For a more comprehensive list of "dos and don'ts," I'd encourage you to check out Bevere's blog entry.

2 comments:

  1. "Just what are pastors and churches allowed to do when it comes to discussing politics and elections?"

    Now see... you've got to be careful tossing about words like "allow"; after all, the whole "separation of church and state" issue arose from a desire to keep the government from encroaching on religious activities and expression (not vice-versa). Pastors and churches are neither "allowed" nor "prohibited" from any sort of expression. That's what "freedom of expression" is all about.

    On the other hand, 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations can lose their tax-exempt status (as you mentioned) if they step over the government-mandated line of what constitutes "political activism." Many (but not all) congregations in the United States have created 501(c)(3) corporations as tax shelters for their donations (tithes, offerings, etc.) and it's those (and only those) congregations which fall under the jurisdiction of these regulations.

    Such laws and regulations--by definition--cannot be applied to pastors of churches which never incorporated in the first place.

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  2. Pastors and churches are neither "allowed" nor "prohibited" from any sort of expression. That's what "freedom of expression" is all about.

    If (as you go on to suggest) tax-exempt status can be threatened (as you do indicate), this is fundamentally not true. Either you can say whatever you want without legal repercussion or you can't.

    And bringing up whether or not churches (as you'll see if you read the linked article, pastors, as individuals, are indeed outside the bounds of these laws) have incorporated is a non-issue. Most have.

    Now, I could have chosen to get into the whole issue of whether churches (or any other organization) should be granted tax-exempt status. There are pros and cons here. But that's outside the purview of what I was trying to talk about, which is simply to understand what is, and isn't "allowed" (under pain of losing that status).

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