Church Electioneering: What Is Illegal?

On a campaign swing through Ohio yesterday, John Kerry attended services at the First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio. The Democratic presidential candidate was introduced by the pastor and given an opportunity to speak to the overflow crowd. In light of so many recent controversies over church electioneering, isn't this another example of illegal activity?

Probably not, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Depending on the circumstances, the federal tax agency says, politicians may be invited without jeopardizing the tax-exempt status of the religious organization.

When a candidate is invited to speak as a candidate, the organization must ensure that it does not indicate support or opposition, it must provide the same opportunity to opposing candidates and political fundraising must not occur.

At yesterday's event, Bishop Timothy Clark introduced Kerry. "We have our senator here today," he said, "but most of all Jesus is here today." Kerry told the assembled congregation that he was "invited here not to speechify, but to worship and to praise."

Because the minister did not endorse Kerry's candidacy and because Kerry did no politicking, it seems well within the bounds of IRS rules.

In this heated election season, both parties are courting religious voters. Americans United has already filed complaints with the IRS against a church in Boston for bringing Kerry to the pulpit with an endorsement and against Jerry Falwell for using his tax-exempt organization to endorse George W. Bush and for encouraging donations to a PAC.

Religious leaders need to exercise caution when it comes to partisan politics: Candidates risk nothing themselves in these escapades and only end up showing disregard for the nation's tax laws. If the IRS cracks down, it will move against the churches, not the campaigns.

Clergy must be careful in this election year not to cross the line and risk their religious institution's tax-exempt status.

For more information see Americans United's special section on Church Electioneering.