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What can churches do during elections?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Hoping to head off what they call “intimidation tactics” by liberal interest groups, several leading Christian organizations have jointly issued a letter to pastors across America, explaining what churches can and cannot legally do during an election season.

The eight-page letter is being released more than a year before Americans vote on a new president, with the goal of answering questions that always arise concerning the church’s role in politics.

Posted online at www.telladf.org, the letter was signed by two legal organizations — the Alliance Defense Fund and the James Madison Center for Free Speech — as well as Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America.

Nearly every presidential election season includes news stories about left-wing interest groups urging the government to revoke various churches’ tax-exempt status.

“The Jeffersonian ‘wall of separation’ doctrine has been twisted in an attempt to silence people of faith not only in the public square, but also in
their churches,” the letter says. “This attitude is an unofficial but outspoken bias against people of faith.”

The letter is titled, “Constitutional Protections for Pastors: Your freedom to speak Biblical truth on the moral issues of the day.” Although the IRS prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing candidates, there is plenty churches can do legally, the letter says.

“By this letter, we assure you that churches and pastors have broad constitutional rights to express their views on a broad array of social issues such as marriage, abortion, and homosexual behavior,” the letter says. “Furthermore, other activities such as allowing parishioners to sign petitions in support of traditional marriage are almost undoubtedly permissible under federal tax law.”

For instances, under federal law pastors and churches can, according to the letter:

— Discuss political candidates’ views on issues.

“Pastors and churches are free to discuss the positions of candidates on issues — including criticizing or praising them for their positions. This is called issue advocacy,” the letter says.

The letter discourages pastors from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit, which the IRS has said is not allowed.

“The endorsement of a candidate includes any statement which uses explicit words to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, such as ‘elect,’ ‘support,’ ‘defeat,’ or ‘oppose.'”

— Hold voter registration drives.

“A church may participate in non-partisan voter registration, voter identification and get-out-the-vote activities,” the letter says. “To be non-partisan, these activities may not be directed at the supporters of any particular candidate or political party…. Furthermore, such activities will not be viewed as non-partisan if they are accompanied by literature praising or criticizing particular candidates or political parties for their positions on issues.”

— Pass out so-called voter guides, showing where candidates stand on issues.

“Voter guides should not include an endorsement of a candidate or expressly advocate the election or defeat of any candidate,” the letter says. “Further, voter guides should not include advocacy of voting for candidates who support particular issues, i.e., single issue voting. Churches may also distribute voter guides prepared by other organizations that meet these guidelines.”

The guides should cover a wide variety of topics and should not indicate a bias, the letter says.

— Lobby for legislation.

“[A] church may discuss legislative issues, support or oppose legislation, encourage its members or the general public to support or oppose legislation and support other organizations with their lobbying efforts,” the letter says. “Furthermore, churches may lobby candidates on their positions on issues and distribute educational material to candidates or at political events, as long as this is being done to get out the organization’s message and not to assist any candidate.”

Churches may spend an “insubstantial amount” on lobbying, generally defined as no more than 5 to 15 percent of a church’s funds, the letter says.

Pastors have the legal right to do more than churches can do, as long as the pastor makes it clear his opinions are his, and not the church’s, the letter says.

“Individuals, such as pastors or priests, may participate in political campaigns, as long as they do so as individuals, and not in the name of the church. Any individual, including a pastor, may wear different hats at different times and, therefore, be involved in political activity, as long as they are wearing the right hat at the right time and place.

“… Individual pastors can endorse political candidates so long as the endorsement is not on behalf of the Church and it is not made in a way that gives the appearance that the endorsement is made in the capacity of pastor or priest.”

Pastors with specific questions can obtain free legal advice by calling the Alliance Defense Fund at 800-TELL-ADF or the James Madison Center at 812-232-2434. The letter, which includes a list of 19 do’s and don’ts, is available online at http://www.telladf.org/UserDocs/PastorsGuidelinesLetter.pdf
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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  • Michael Foust