Americans United in September mailed letters to 100,000 houses of worship nationwide, reminding religious leaders that it is a violation of federal law if they use church resources to endorse or oppose candidates for office this election season.
In the letter, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn explained what houses of worship can and can’t do when it comes to political activity.
“Houses of worship and other non-profits are, for example, free to sponsor voter registration drives and candidate forums, provided these activities are genuinely non-partisan,” Lynn wrote. “Additionally, your church may address ballot referenda and engage in other forms of issue advocacy. Pastors may even offer personal endorsements of candidates (away from their pulpits) as long as no church resources are used to help get a candidate elected or defeated to public office.”
This topic has been in the news quite a bit in recent months thanks to Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump’s repeated claim that the tax code should be changed because churches are being denied free-speech rights.
In his letter, Lynn addressed that falsehood.
“You may have heard a great deal of talk this election season from politicians who want to repeal something known as the ‘Johnson Amendment,’ which they claim prohibits clergy from speaking freely in their pulpits…,” wrote Lynn. “This is not true. The Johnson Amendment, which was backed by then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) in 1954, is an amendment to the federal tax code that makes it illegal for houses of worship and other 501(c)(3) non-profits to endorse or oppose candidates for public office. That means houses of worship may not use their resources, directly or indirectly, to assist a candidate running for election or work to defeat a candidate.”
Americans United sends letters like this to clergy during presidential and congressional election years to remind houses of worship not to fall for Religious Right claims about pulpit politicking. AU notes that religious and secular groups that hold 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status risk losing their tax exemption if they break the law.
The AU letter was sent to a broad cross-section of faith organizations in all 50 states, including liberal and conservative churches, as well as mosques, synagogues and others.
This letter was sent in conjunction with Americans United’s Project Fair Play, an initiative that seeks to keep houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. Through this project, AU has reported 125 faith communities and ministries to the Internal Revenue Service since 1996 for alleged political intervention.
Americans United is also asking the IRS to step up its enforcement of the law and has asked its members and supporters to sign a petition to the tax agency.