Houses of worship should obey federal tax law and stay out of partisan politics during election season, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.
Americans United has sent more than 84,000 letters to clergy across the country to remind them that federal law prohibits tax-exempt entities, such as houses of worship, from endorsing candidates for public office.
“The tax code is very clear when it comes to churches and politics,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “A house of worship can’t endorse or oppose candidates for office. Our letter simply reminds religious leaders about what the law requires, why it makes sense and how it could affect them.”
AU sent the letter to a wide range of denominations from across the theological spectrum; the missive explains that houses of worship are not muzzled when it comes to politics – but there are limits.
“The First Amendment absolutely protects the right of all Americans, including religious leaders, to discuss political issues from the pulpit,” the letter says. “But houses of worship and other non-profit groups classified under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are expressly prohibited from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office; they may not directly or indirectly intervene in partisan campaigns between candidates in any way.”
The letter also mentions some recent IRS developments of which religious organizations should be mindful.
“The agency recently revealed that it has formed a ‘Political Activities Referral Committee’ (PARC) to investigate allegations made against houses of worship for potentially unlawful forms of campaign intervention,” the letter says. “PARC is up and running and has determined ‘as of June 23, 2014, 99 churches merit a high priority examination’ for partisan political activity undertaken during the years 2010-13. As long as you follow the rules, however, your house of worship is not in danger of being added to that list.”
The mass mailing comes as Religious Right groups are stepping up their efforts to persuade pastors to politicize their pulpits. In September, the Family Research Council held its annual “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, D.C., which is essentially an effort to convince fundamentalist voters to cast their ballots for candidates hand-picked by the Religious Right.
Last week, the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based Religious Right legal group founded by TV and radio preachers, urged conservative Christian pastors to violate tax law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit on the so-called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Nearly 1,500 pastors reportedly participated in the Oct. 5 event.
Added Lynn, “Most clergy of all faiths know better than to tell their congregants how to vote. Sadly, there are some in the Religious Right who want to turn churches into partisan political machines – not for the good of those churches but to achieve their own radical agenda. We urge religious leaders not to get caught up in this scheme.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.