Top officials from the Internal Revenue Service recently appeared at an event for African-American clergy to remind religious leaders that federal law prohibits houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
Several right-wing groups criticized the May 30 event, which was sponsored by the Conference of National Black Churches and the Congressional Black Caucus, as an effort by President Barack Obama and his congressional allies to instruct pastors in black churches on how to get around a federal law that bars non-profit groups from intervening in partisan politics.
In fact, the presentation in Washington, D.C., was nothing of the kind and amounted to a reminder to church leaders not to engage in pulpit politicking.
IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman made brief introductory remarks and then turned the podium over to Peter Lorenzetti, an IRS regional manager and a 39-year veteran of the agency.
Lorenzetti gave a purely factual presentation that reflected the current state of the law. He distributed a do’s and don’ts list for the pastors and reminded them that they may not use church resources to endorse or oppose candidates.
“There are a couple of activities that tend to jeopardize the exempt status,” Lorenzetti told the pastors. Among them, he said, is partisan political activity.
Lorenzetti warned the religious leaders that they must avoid “direct and indirect support for a candidate in an election” and told them that making contributions to candidates, holding biased forums that favor one candidate over another and “making public statements for or against a particular candidate” are not permitted. He went on to note that even-handed election-related activities, such as objective voter guides and candidate forums that are open to all who are running for office, are permissible.
Far from being a strategy session on how to get around the law, the session, which was broadcast on C-SPAN, amounted to a good primer on what pastors need to do to follow it.
Lorenzetti was followed at the podium by U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) who stressed many of the same points. Butterfield reminded pastors that if politicians visit churches, they can be recognized but not endorsed.
Butterfield also advised caution about letting candidates address the congregation.
As election seasons heats up, the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund) is once again prodding pastors to openly violate the law. The Religious Right group’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” takes place Oct. 7. During the event, pastors are asked to discuss candidates from the pulpit and then send the sermons to the IRS.
In response, Americans United is stepping its Project Fair Play, an effort to educate pastors and others about what the law requires.
AU urges its supporters to keep an eye open for illegal church politicking. Anyone with evidence of such activity should send it to Americans United at 1301 K St., N.W., Suite 850, East Tower, Washington, D.C. 20005. Or email it to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about this issue, visit: projectfairplay.org.