It is critical for religious institutions to hew closely to the laws regarding what they can and cannot do in the political arena. Missteps in this regard could jeopardize a church, synagogue or mosque’s non-profit status and have severe financial consequences. Please keep these guidelines in mind:
- You must be vigilant if you are a 501(c)(3) organization, which most religious institutions are. Some (usually smaller) groups have a religious affiliation but have not registered as a 501(c)(3) with the Internal Revenue Service. So, for instance, a neighborhood Bible study group that collects no dues and rotates meetings between homes is small enough and not receiving the benefits of that non-profit status. They have more leeway as to what they can do.
- Be very clear as to what are “church” events and what are private events. That is, individuals have the ability to host politicians at their homes or other venues for campaign events and fundraisers. These same individuals can invite their fellow parishioners. But, they have to be clear in the invitation and in any language relating to the event, that it is private and it is not sponsored in any way by the church.
- Events that occur at the institution’s headquarters, offices or owned or leased property by the institution, must be structured carefully, in a way to limit exposure to the religious institution.
- Candidates may not be endorsed by the organization or its officers or staff members, who speak on behalf of the institution. Sermons cannot exhort the congregants to vote for a certain candidate. Many religious groups are aware of this restriction, and “work around” it, encouraging their congregants to vote for people who support different core issues, without mentioning the politicians by name. This is technically legal, but not always advisable.
- Candidate endorsement and electioneering is taboo in all official congregational settings, including services, board meetings, committee meetings, adult and child education sessions, and even during community service time, like feeding the hungry or walks or fundraisers for various charitable organizations.
- Get out the vote events and candidate forums are allowed at religious institutions but they must be transparently non-partisan. A variety of candidates must be invited (they do not all have to show up), and again, no electioneering on the part of congregational leadership can occur.
- DICEY SITUATION: A single candidate may speak about an issue of importance to the congregation (Middle East politics, abortion law, funding for the poor, etc.), as long as the candidate (or attendees!) does not ask for votes and as long as the event is not billed as a campaign event. It is best if any pre-publicity does not mention the candidate’s name or that he or she is running for office.