WASHINGTON, D.C. The congressional midterm elections are fast approaching, and, as it usually does at election time, "the" question has resurfaced: How far can churches and nonprofit groups legally go in terms of involvement?
The answer, according to legal experts like Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, and Mat Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, is that pastors and churches can do plenty.
"What pastors can do is not only encourage their people to be engaged in the political process, and to vote a biblical worldview, but also, they can talk about the key issues of the day," Sekulow said.
Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, points out that most churches and ministries fall under the Internal Revenue Code's guidelines for 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations.
Only one area is specifically prohibited for such groups: advocating for or against candidates.
"Churches and nonprofit organizations may not specifically endorse or oppose a candidate for elective office," Staver said. "For example, a church cannot say that it corporately supports or opposes a particular candidatewhether it's for local, state or national office."
But Staver said 501(c)3 groups clearly do have the right to engage in educational campaigns during elections.
"That can be done through the distribution of voter guides that clearly indicate the positions of the candidates on certain issues. These voter guides need to cover a number of areas," Staver said. "Certainly, the moral areas can be included, as well."
Staver said churches and nonprofits can also give their specific positions on issues. For example, he said, a church could talk about abortionand give the biblical reasons for choosing life as opposed to abortion.
"Churches can encourage their members to votealthough they can't tell them who to vote for," he added. "They can also set up nonpartisan voter-registration drives and hold candidate forums, where all officially declared candidates for an office are invited to address the issues and answer questions."
Sekulow said there was a time when Election-Day sermons were common.
"In colonial times, they had Election-Day sermons encouraging the people to vote," he said. "That type of sermon would be fine, even today."
He pointed out that pastors may legally endorse candidatesbut only as an individual citizen.
"A pastor can actually work for a candidate's campaign," Staver said. "But he cannot do it on behalf of his church or organization; he can only do it as a private citizen."
Sekulow said political-action organizations, known to the IRS as 501(c)4 groups, may speak more forthrightly on issues than churches can. Focus on the Family Action is a 501(c)4. Though some pastors and Christian leaders head (c)4s, they do so as individuals.
"Action groups are allowed to be much broader in what they can say," he said, "but again it's not the pastor speaking on behalf of the church."
The issue of church involvement seems to invite tough questions. For example, can a pastor legally invite a candidate to speak from the pulpit?
The answer isn't so clear-cut, so both attorneys advocate extreme caution.
"That's always a much more difficult situation, because it depends on the facts and circumstances, and then you run into the whole issue: Does that appearance constitute an endorsement?" Sekulow said. "Under the law as it exists right now, that would be a dangerous move."
Staver said a pastor may clearly bring a candidate up to the pulpit during an election cycleor acknowledge a candidate who is attending the church that particular day, along with acknowledging other dignitaries who may be there.
"But when the candidate is in the pulpit," Staver said, "he or she should not use that time as a political mandate to encourage people to vote for him or her. The candidate is allowed to speak on biblical and moral issues, but should not actually use that as a political campaign podium.
"I think that's where you really have to be careful, so that the candidate doesn't turn the church service into a political opportunity."
Is a pastor, then, allowed to designate one candidate or another as "the pro-life candidate" or "the pro-family candidate?"
"If a pastor actually preaches from the pulpit regarding an issue, say abortion, and then gives the positions of the candidates, that gets close to the line of actually seeming to endorse a candidate," Staver said.
Sekulow said there's no doubt that a pastor has the freedom to talk about the issue of abortion itself. But after that, it gets more complicated.
"Can they then say, 'This candidate is for abortion, and this candidate is against'? That would probably constitute, under the IRS interpretation, endorsement or opposition to a candidate, which is prohibited," he said.
The bottom line: There is a clear rule that must be followed: A church may not endorse or oppose specific candidates. Short of that, there's a lot of leeway for involvement, even if the issue is politics.Citizenlink