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TEXAS FAITH: Should the ban on political activity by churches be repealed?


The following ran on the March 20, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. William Lawrence, theology professor, and Matthew Wilson, political scientist, provided expertise for this story.

March 28, 2012

By Wayne Slater

It's a presidential election season, so count the issue of church involvement in politics to come up this year. Federal tax law is quite clear. Houses of worship cannot formally endorse or oppose candidates for public office. They can speak out on issues. They can conduct non-partisan voter registration drives. Ministers can encourage those in the pews to stay informed on the issue important to them. But a religious leader cannot endorse a political candidate from the pulpit. It's a tax issue. Churches, synagogues, mosques and places of religious worship with tax-exempt status can't actively engage in partisan politics.

It hasn't always been that way. In 1954, federal law was changed to say that charitable organizations lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in political campaigns. The rule might be constitutional (one Supreme Court said it was). But why is it a good idea? Why is it ever a good idea for government to restrict what ministers can say in a house of worship?

 Are we better off with the current situation in which some groups skirt the edge of the law, creating separate entities or disguising clear engagement to the benefit of a particular candidate with a creative explanation about how they aren't doing that at all? Is it better that religious leaders self-censor what they tell their congregations for fear of audits and fines? Without the rule, presumably there would be conservative churches that tilt toward Republican  candidates and progressive congregations that that would favor Democrats -- and a lot of pastors who don't endorse because they don't want to. But shouldn't that be their call?

Should the federal ban on political activity by churches and religious institutions be repealed - or remain in place? Our Texas Faith panel weighs in -- and they don't agree on the answer....

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, SMU

In my view, this is a ban that should be repealed, both for religious organizations and for all other non-profits. The reality is that certain parties and candidates espouse policies inimical to the values and interests of churches, museums, universities, etc., but under current tax law these institutions are not free to point this out to their supporters for fear of losing their tax-exempt status. I understand the rationale for the current law--we would not want partisan political organizations setting themselves up as sham churches or non-profits in order to take advantage of tax-exempt status. Perhaps, in order to discourage this, an organization should lose its tax exemption if more than a certain percentage of its revenues are used for election-related activities. There is no perfect, easy answer to this issue, but the current blanket prohibition on speech about parties and candidates seems to me excessively restrictive on churches and other non-profits.

One of the biggest problems with the current law is its selective application. Religious institutions across the political spectrum play fast and loose with these restrictions all of the time, generally without consequence. In fact, the reality that so many violations go unpunished makes the few instances of actual enforcement seem suspect and politically motivated. Many conservatives cried foul, for example, when the Clinton administration stripped the largely white, evangelical Christian Coalition of its tax exemption on the grounds of politicization, but ignored (and indeed profited from) widespread overt partisanship in African American churches. A better solution is to free everyone to speak their mind politically, and to let congregations decide if and when their leaders become excessively politicized to the detriment of their spiritual functions....

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

The existing ban on direct endorsements of political candidates by religious organizations (including churches) is one of those marvelous American inventions that seeks to manage complex constitutional issues. While the first amendment to the Constitution is clear on its face regarding the nation's opposition to a religious establishment and the affirmation of religious freedom, we have long-standing practices that create openings in the wall of separation between church and state.

Religious organizations enjoy a number of favorable tax benefits at various levels of government, including the federal government. They are treated like non-religious, non-profit organizations so that contributions by individual taxpayers to them are legitimate deductions. Their professional leaders--who are "ordained" or "licensed" by the polity of the religious body--can declare a portion of their compensation as housing allowance, which is not subject to income tax. In states that have income tax, religious organizations do not pay taxes. And in most municipalities, property taxes are waived for religious organizations.

When it comes to endorsements of specific candidates, the ban remains in place. But there is no requirement for "equal time" when it comes to appearances at religious organizations' gatherings. If a pastor of a local church in the National Baptist Convention invites Barack Obama to speak in morning worship, there is no requirement that Mitt Romney also be invited to speak on another Sunday in worship. If a priest in a Roman Catholic parish invites Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum to speak during Mass, he is under no obligation to invite Ron Paul later.

In my view, the existing ban does little to prohibit implied endorsements of candidates. The pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas managed to be very clear about whom he favored in the Republican primary and whom he opposed in the November election, without ever having to make a partisan endorsement.

Actually, the ban is more beneficial to churches than it is to the political process. Imagine the uproar if a pastor or rabbi announced an endorsement of one candidate while a sizable minority of the congregation favored another candidate! The "ban" gives religious leaders some cover to avoid creating conflict in their religious communities. It does not prohibit religious leaders from being politically active, nor does it nullify their ability to imply support for some specific candidate through other less-than-subtle actions. But it does let them do so without picking a fight with their own parishioners.