Kansas Panel Addresses Questions Of Church Electioneering

Recent political debates have left some religious leaders confused about the legal ins and outs of their role in this campaign year. The eagerness of some preachers to advocate on both sides of marriage amendment debate risk the tax-exempt status of their churches if they cross the boundary into partisan politicking. In an attempt to clear the air, top law enforcement officials in Kansas convened an unprecedented summit to discuss current tax law governing church electioneering.

Kansas Attorney General Phill Klein said that "it's vitally important that the law be understood," and invited U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren and Tom Miller of the Internal Revenus Service to help answer questions. The three experts reiterated the current legal restrictions: generally that tax-exempt organizations cannot use charitable donations to endorse specific candidates or political parties.

Like conservative critics of current law, Klein said that he feared that questions about the do's and don'ts could muzzle churches by creating a "chilling effect." Instead, everyone seemed to leave the event appreciating the opportunity to ask questions. The panel discussion was informative, said Scott Hanks, pastor of the 300-member Heritage Baptist Church in Lawrence. "Clergy have absolute freedom when talking about an issue," said Caroline McKnight, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition. "But the rules become more restrictive when the clergy want to connect with a party or a candidate."

Miller, the IRS expert, reminded the audience that the laws are very plain. Under the Internal Revenue Code, all churches and religious organizations, are prohibited from participating in any political campaign either for or against a candidate for public office. Miller reiterated that these rules apply to church voter guides, which are common in Kansas. Voter guides are likely to be viewed as partisan if the questions are "loaded" and candidates are not given much room to explain their answers.