Should churches be cogs in a candidate’s political machine?

The American people overwhelmingly tell pollsters that they do not want houses of worship to be politicized. And federal law forbids churches, like other tax-exempt nonprofits, to intervene in partisan campaigns.

Yet some misguided clergy keep bending the rules. According to today’s New York Times, candidates for a vacant U.S. House seat in Chicago are targeting churches to win support, and some pastors seem to be misusing their positions to help favored office seekers.

The House seat in question is in a predominantly African-American, Democratic-leaning part of Chicago. Until his recent resignation, the seat was held by Jesse Jackson Jr.

Now there’s a vigorous contest under way in the Democratic primary to grab the post. Nine candidates have already filed to run, and more are expected before today’s filing deadline.

The Times reports that some clergy are letting their personal biases guide their actions, instead of adherence to fairness and federal tax law.

Carl L. White Jr., pastor of Victory Christian Assembly in Markham, Ill., said, “We want it to stay an African-American seat. We want a voice for us in this area. There’s access that comes with culture.”

White, the newspaper said, is backing State Senator Toi W. Hutchinson. He has also, The Times said, pushed more religious leaders to meet with Hutchinson and asked her to speak in front of his roughly 500 parishioners in the coming weeks.

That’s where the trouble comes in.

Clergy, like all Americans, are entitled to participate in elections. But they must do so in their personal capacity, not as heads of tax-exempt organizations. Pastor White is perfectly free to support Hutchinson on his own time and his own dime, but when he invites her – and not the other candidates for the office – to occupy the church pulpit and speak to the congregation, he’s stepped over the legal line.

If churches want to participate in elections, they must be even handed. They can hold a forum and invite all of the candidates to speak, but they cannot show preferential treatment.

If Pastor White invites Hutchinson, he needs to invite all the other candidates as well.

African-American clergy have historically played an important role in political life. Black churches were a crucial component of the drive to pass voting-rights laws and other civil rights legislation that has made our country a better place for everyone.

Dr. Martin Luther King, whose life we celebrate later this month, was a Baptist preacher who often quoted scripture as he called on our nation to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) But according to U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and others inside the civil rights movement, Dr. King never endorsed a political candidate from the pulpit.

Dr. King knew, as we know today, that it is important that America’s pulpits not become partisan soapboxes for any party or any candidate.