Recently in the United States, Canada and elsewhere, major elections have been held. While we can be tempted to express our views on political issues, we are admonished by Jesus Christ to “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In sermons and Bible studies, it is unwise to make comments that would lead anyone to think that the church endorses a specific political party or candidate. We have included an Associated Press statement that gives one very good reason why we shouldn’t — the church could lose its tax-exempt status in the United States. Please read the article so that you are aware of the legal implications.
Joseph Tkach, Jr., 1989
Announcing Political Stands May Threaten Churches’ Tax Status
New York — Church lawyers are laying down some strict guidelines on what religious organizations can — and cannot — do in…political campaigning. The key warning is that they must not support or oppose specific candidates, or seem by implication to do so since it would endanger a church’s tax exemption [in the United States].
Attorneys for the country’s two largest Christian groups — Baptists and Roman Catholics — have issued lengthy instructions for church organizations on avoiding partisan political activity….
The Internal Revenue Service “has a newfound enthusiasm for scrutiny of religious organizations,” says Mark E. Chopko, general counsel of the U.S. Catholic Conference. Citing restrictions laid down in the IRS code on tax exemptions for religious organization, he advises: “During an election campaign, exempt organizations remain free to address issues of concern to them and to their membership…. However, such discourse must focus on issues and not personalities.”
Oliver S. Thomas, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, advises that churches, to avoid jeopardizing their tax-exempt status, must heed the following rules: Don’t support or oppose a candidate directly or indirectly, whether in a sermon, church newsletter, sample ballot or by financial means. Avoid pejorative labels when mentioning a candidate by name.
Don’t provide volunteers, mailing lists, publicity, nor distribute or display campaign literature on church premises or provide free use of facilities unless made available equally to all parties and candidates.
However, both Catholic and Baptist advisories note that churches may hold non-partisan public forums or debates where all candidates have a chance to state their views and distribute their literature.
The sponsoring church organization, however, must not present its views on the topics discussed. Thomas says: “It is advisable for the organization, in introducing a candidate, to state clearly and emphatically that the views of the candidate are not necessarily the views of the church and no endorsement is intended by the candidate’s presence.”
Nevertheless…religious organizations have a constitutional right to take sides on political issues, so long as their views aren’t explicitly applied for or against specific candidates.
“In reality, participation in the public debate on important issues inevitably overlaps with positions taken by certain candidates,” Chopko observes. “Nonetheless, issue-oriented speech is protected by the first amendment of the Constitution, and is entirely proper.”
Also, church employees and officials may participate freely in the political campaigning as individuals, providing it is made clear they are not acting as representatives of the church. “If a diocesan or parish official speaks at a rally supporting a particular candidate, he should avoid being introduced in his official capacity,” Chopko says.
Thomas also stresses that point, adding that if a minister is involved, and mention is made of his church, there should also be a disclaimer making clear he is not speaking on the church’s behalf.
“Separating the minister’s role as an individual voter from his role as a church leader is always difficult,” Thomas says, adding: “A minister should never endorse a candidate from the pulpit, even though he might insist he is speaking in his individual capacity.”
George W. Cornell, Associated Press