When Religion and Politics Meet: Our Faith Our Vote


It’s almost 2020, and you know what that
means: A presidential election is right around the corner. Now for many
congregations, the question arises, “Can we –or even should–we be engaged in the
public dialogue and political process around the elections?” If you think about
it, public policy is about the way we order our common lives, and if you read
closely in the scriptures, you will see that much of it is about how we order
our common life; how we are to treat the stranger and the sojourner among us; how
we are to treat people justly. It has everything to do about being in right
relationship with each other, so that we are in right relationship with God. So if
the rules that order our common life are not fair, and not just, and we are not in
right relationship with each other, then we are not in right relationship with
God. So, not only can we be involved in the public sphere and in the electoral
process, we should be. What makes us unique as people of faith, is that we can
be a voice in the political process that is nonpartisan. It’s important to make a
distinction between political activity, and being political–being involved in
the public sphere, being involved in the conversation about the ways we order our
common life–and being partisan, which is aligned with a particular ideology. As
people of faith, what informs our approach to public policy in
the way we order our common life, is not any one particular party or ideology. It
is our understanding of God through the Scriptures and God’s calling for us as
human community. So, still the question arises though, specifically, “What are the
things that congregations and individual members can and can’t do in an election
year.” Joining us here is Heather Kimmel, our United Church of Christ legal
counsel, and Heather, thank you for being with us to share your expertise on the
intricacies of 501(c)3 do’s and don’ts for engaging in election
campaigns. So my first question for you Heather is what if one candidate is
clearly in opposition to all our church’s values, and one is clearly
aligned? Do I, if I want to have one of them speak do I have to invite everyone?
Yes, Sandy, that is an example of a church being partisan if it would invite just
the candidate that aligned with its values and not all of the candidates. To
be in compliance with 501(c)3 requirements, a church is gonna have to
invite all candidates to speak on equal terms. Can I encourage my congregation to
think long and hard before voting for a particular candidate or politician? So I
think that encouraging your congregation to think long and hard before voting for
a particular candidate probably falls within discouraging your congregation
from voting for a particular candidate, and would be considered partisan under
the IRS rules. So, no, a church cannot do that. If I invite candidates to a forum
at the church, can I ask leading questions or provide
them with talking points beforehand so that the message I want to get across
does? No you can’t do that. Holding a candidate forum is really a way for the
candidates to get their own message across, and a church cannot interfere
with that. Otherwise, it would be considered political or interference
with the political campaign. So you’re going to have to let the candidates get
their own message across. Can my youth group canvass for a particular candidate?
The Church youth group can’t canvass for a particular candidate as a youth group.
Individuals, of course, are free to canvass and volunteer for any
political campaign that they want to volunteer for, but that can’t be
organized by the church. Can I accept a meeting from a candidate who has reached
out to have an event at my church or have a private meeting with me? A pastor
is always free to meet with any political candidates that they want to
meet with, but they should be careful about making promises on behalf of the
church. If a politician is an elected official and a candidate, can I criticize
or praise something they’ve done from the pulpit? In this instance, I would
recommend that you stay away from criticizing or even praising something
that a candidate has done, and instead talk about the current policies and
whether we need to see changes in those policies, when we’re talking about issues
of public policy. Can I use space in my church bulletin for specific information
on an issue that’s being raised in the campaigns? Absolutely! I think voter
education is a responsibility of our churches and churches should feel free
to use space in their bulletin to educate their congregation on the issues.
What you want to avoid, though, is ascribing any particular issue to any
particular candidate, and describe a broad range of public policy issues when
you do that voter education. If a candidate takes a view contrary to the
stated values of my denomination, can I mention that in an official capacity from
the pulpit? No, a pastor can’t do that on behalf of the church because that
veers again into what we call “partisanship,” where that would discourage
members of your congregation from voting for that candidate based on that
misalignment with the church’s values. So I can, we can, talk about the issues
from the pulpit? You can definitely talk about the issues from the pulpit. Always
do that in the context of the mission and the ministry of your church and what
is important to you as a faith community. If a member of my congregation wants to
hold a fundraiser for a candidate on church property, and we rent it out for
other occasions, is that okay? So that really depends. If your church just rents
space for things like weddings and perhaps to nonprofit organizations whose
values align with the church just to cover their costs, I would say that’s
probably not okay in this instance. However, if your church frequently rent
space to commercial entities or on a regular basis, on a first-come
first-served basis to any group that wants to meet there on equal terms, then
it probably is okay for that member to hold a fundraiser there. Just remember that you’re gonna have to give the same opportunity for anyone
else who wants to hold a fundraiser there, as well. I want to hold an issue forum at my church on issues not candidates. Is that okay? Yes, absolutely! I
think churches and the membership of a church should have
robust discussions on public policy issues, and although a particular candidate or
particular candidates position might come up, so long as the church itself
isn’t taking a position on that candidate, then it’s fine for members to
discuss those thoughts with each other. A candidate wants to visit my church for
Sunday Service and give a message to the congregation. Is that electioneering? A couple things about that: Yes, it is electioneering. Now, of course, a church
could do that if it also invited all of the other candidates to deliver a
message on Sunday morning. But my question is, does a church really want to
give the space in the pulpit on a Sunday morning to a candidate for political
office? You know, Heather, that’s a really good point, because one of the things
that makes our faith voice unique in the public sphere, and in election season, is
the fact that we are independent and nonpartisan, and that we have the power
to speak a prophetic voice to any and all parties, and to any and all candidates.
So, maybe it’s better to just allow members of the congregation to interact
with candidates in other ways. I think that’s right.
I want to hold a voter registration drive in my church. Can I partner with a
political party on their nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts? No, a church
can’t do that. It should either do the get out the vote campaign and the voter
registration drive–it should do that independently, or perhaps partner with
another nonpartisan community group in order to do that work. Can our church put
a sign on its property advocating for the passing of a ballot initiative. So
you bring up a really good point, and maybe it’s a point that a lot of
churches don’t know, is that churches actually can lobby. Under the IRS rules
churches can do things like contacting their legislators to advocate for ballot
initiatives, or even grassroots lobbying where it asks other folks to contact
their legislators about ballot initiatives. It can put signs on their
property encouraging folks to vote for or against ballot initiatives. The
only limit on that is that lobbying has to be limited to an insubstantial part
of a church’s activities. “What is insubstantial?” has not been
really defined by the IRS, but a good rule of thumb would be that it uses less
than 5% of the church’s money and time to do that. And you can really reach a
lot of people with very little time and money now with social media, and other
initiatives in order to get that message across. Our church’s pastor is
running for office. Is there anything that I should be aware of? So, again
you’ve raised a really good point, in that our pastors have their own voice,
and they should be allowed to exercise that voice, even to the extent of running
for elected office, if that is what they feel called to do. What is important for
pastors who are running for elected office to keep in mind, is that they
cannot use the church as a platform or the church resources to assist them in
their campaign. So, they need to be clear about when they are speaking on behalf
of the church, and when they are speaking on behalf of their own candidacy. They
are always going to be speaking on behalf of the church when they are using
either church resources or the pulpit, in passing on a message, and even when
they are not using church resources or speaking at a church, or at a church
event, best practice would dictate that a pastor should say that they are speaking
with their own independent voice, and not on behalf of the church when they are
doing that. And, actually, that brings up another good point, is many pastors and
even church employees may want to volunteer to assist candidates in this
election season, and those folks can certainly volunteer to help with
election campaigns, they just need to make sure that they’re not using church
resources to do that. So we’re not going to send emails from the church email
address, we’re not going to make posts on the church blog page about candidates,
and we’re not going to post on social media from the church’s own social media
site about our work with candidates. And so that also means then, that church
employees need to do that work on their own time. Absolutely. Part of using church
resources is using church work time, so let’s not do that either.
Churches are 501(c)3 organizations which means that they have to comply with the
Internal Revenue Service’s rules on political campaign intervention and
limitations on lobbying. But, by following a few rules, churches can effectively
engage in the political process and still do legal and effective ministry in
a political campaign season. The first rule is that churches can be political,
but they can’t be partisan. So, this means you cannot discourage or encourage your
congregants from voting for or against a particular candidate. And if you decide
to extend an invitation to a candidate to speak to your church or provide
resources to that candidate, give the same equal opportunity to all candidates
in that race. The second rule is that churches cannot contribute to, or
fundraise for, a political campaign. All church dollars have to be spent in
accordance with 501(c)3, which means they have to be set for a charitable purpose.
Members, a pastor on their own, and other church leaders can contribute to
political campaigns independently, but churches cannot contribute to a
political fundraiser. The third rule is to pay attention to the limitations on
lobbying. Churches can lobby, which means that they can advocate for or against a
passage of ballot measures, by contacting their elected officials, or by
encouraging their congregants to contact their elected officials, or by even
posting signs on church property. Churches just need to keep in mind that
these activities should be an insubstantial part of their activities,
which roughly means that a church can spend less than 5 percent of its time
and money on lobbying. The final rule is that a church should distinguish its
voice from its pastor’s voice when appropriate. Our pastors have their own
independent voices and should feel free to use those in a partisan way during an
election, so long as they make it clear that they
are not speaking on behalf of the church. A pastor will always be speaking on
behalf of the church when a pastor is speaking at the church or at a church
event. In other situations, the pastor should make it clear that they are
speaking independently and not on behalf of their church.




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