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IRS regulations:

In the U.S., the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) grants non-profit status to churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other religious organizations. This is of tremendous financial benefit. Meanwhile, clergy and other employees are guaranteed free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They are free to voice their opinions and beliefs, and advocate changes to legislation. They can attack women's freedom to obtain an abortion. They can advocate that special rights be reserved for heterosexuals, and not extended to gays and lesbians, including the right to marry. Christian Identity, neo-Nazi groups, and everyone else are free to engage in hate speech against women, racial minorities, sexual minorities, immigrants, and other groups. A pastor in Texas recently called on the U.S. Army to round up and execute area Wiccans with napalm. The tax exempt status of his church was not threatened. Religious groups can promote a stand on other similar "hot" religious topics, from spanking children to the death penalty and physician assisted suicide. They are even allowed by the IRS to contribute small amounts of money and resources to the fight for changes in legislation. In the words of the IRS regulations: "no substantial part of (church) activities (may consist of) carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation." Unfortunately, the term "substantial" is not defined precisely in the service's regulations.

However, there are some strings attached. Non-profit religious institutions cannot give financial or moral support to specific political candidates. Thus, a clergyperson cannot deliver a sermon in which she or he recommends that the members of the congregation vote for a particular candidate or a particular political party. To do so would endanger their non-profit status. A clergyperson can probably suggest that they vote for or against a state proposition, because no great expenditure of money would be involved. But a church cannot make financial contributions to a candidate's political campaign.

A growing number of religious groups are ignoring the IRS regulations. Others have organized PAC groups which are kept separate from the religious organization.

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House bills:

Representative  Walter B. Jones (R-NC) introduced a bill (HR 2357) in the House during the 2002 session. It is titled "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act." The bill would "...amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to permit churches and other houses of worship to engage in political campaigns," as long as the amount spent does not exceed a "substantial part" of their total income. 1 That percentage is not specified in the bill. This would allow religious groups to make direct contributions to politicians, to endorse candidates, to organize members of the congregation and supply staff to directly help political campaigns.

Rep.  Philip M.  Crane (R-IL) has sponsored the Bright Line Act of 2001 (HR 2931). It would introduce a system similar to that in place in Canada. It would allow religious non-profit groups to spend up to 20% of their annual declared, gross revenues for political lobbying. In an address to the Christian Broadcasting Network, Crane said that his bill would permit "Twenty percent (of church revenue)...[to] be used for influencing issues like lobby and five percent can go to candidates. Or if you blend the two functions you can spend up to 20 percent of your budget doing that." This bill has 20 co-sponsors, including Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX), Whip Tom Delay (R-TX), Roy Blunt (R-MO), John T. Doolittle (R-CA) and Charles Norwood (R-GA).

There are rumors that at least HR 2357 will receive special "fast track" attention. This would be necessary if the bill is to be passed before 2002-OCT-4 deadline, when both the senate and House are scheduled to adjourn. If one of the bills meets this deadline, then the law could be signed into law by the President in time for the 2002-NOV elections when all 435 House of Representatives seats and 34 of the 100 Senate seats are being contested.

If either of these bills becomes law, "vast reservoirs of money, political precinct workers and other key resources [would be freed up] in time for the November election, and certainly the presidential race in 2004." 2 Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists said: "Enacting either of these bills and allowing and allowing churches, mosques and temples to engage in overt political campaigning would just legitimize what is now a widespread and abusive practice. While we oppose both measures, the fact is that violations of election laws have become almost commonplace at election time. Churches and other houses of worship already endorse candidates and provide votes and campaign workers...All that remains now is form them to just blatantly announce that they will be taking parishioners' money and using it to buy political favors." 2

Some mainline and liberal faith groups, including the American Jewish Committee, Baptist Joint Committee, National Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), Unitarian Universalist Association, United Methodist Church, and even some Buddhist organizations have announced that they oppose both bills.

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Examples of illegal activities:

We found four instances of illegal promotion of political candidates on the Internet. It is interesting to note that religious groups took opposite positions in these cases:


In the race for governor of Pennsylvania, a group of Philadelphia ministers, The Black Clergy of Philadelphia, endorsed Democrat Bob Casey Jr. A month later, another coalition of African-American clergy led by Rev. Albert Campbell of Mount Carmel Baptist Church endorsed former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell for the position. Rendell won the primary. The impact that the churches' support made to his success is unknown.

bullet Rep. Phil Crane (R-IL), sponsor of HR 2931 told the Christian Broadcasting Network that: "The IRS has already harassed some [clergy]. We had an instance where the government went after a former colleague, Reverend Flake up in New York, and it was [because] of his involvement in that last campaign, his endorsement of Al Gore." Meanwhile, the Church at Pierce Creek, NY lost its tax-exempt standing after running newspaper ads calling for the defeat of Bill Clinton over his position on abortion access.

Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition supports HR 2931. He complained about the vague nature of the IRS's current interpretation of legislation: "The IRS has a ruling that says churches may not be involved (in political activity) if it is significant but they can be involved if it is insignificant. No one knows what that really means." This confusion would be preserved if HR 2357 is passed.

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Misleading promotion of these bills:

Although the IRS regulations only apply to actual endorsement and/or financial support of political candidates by non-profit religious groups or their employees, many of the statements in support of these bills imply that the IRS is muzzling all discussion of religious matters which have a political content:


Congressman Walter Jones (R, NC-3), sponsor of the (HR 2357) ,said: "Why should a clergyman be denied the freedom to promote religious doctrine that also happens to be a political issue?" 3


Congressman Pitts (R, PA-16) stated: "I'm deeply disappointed that the IRS has taken a position that religious leaders are unable to speak their minds simply because they wear the hat of clergyman...The Congress must make it a priority to pass legislation to permit religious leaders to address the political issues of the day. Congress never should have interfered with their constitutional rights to begin with." 3

Of course, no clergyperson is prohibited from discussing their denomination's beliefs on political matters. They can talk at length of, for example, the sanctity of life, of the Bible's statements that impact on abortion, of the current laws giving women access to abortion, about the morality of abortion, of the current policies by each of the political parties on abortion access, etc. They can commit a small part of the church's finances to promoting new legislation, as long as it is not "substantial." They are only prevented from endorsing and financially supporting specific candidates -- and then only if their religious organization wishes to claim tax-exempt status.

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  1. "Lawmakers seek ways to promote pulpit politics," American Atheists, 2001-OCT-1, at:
  2. "Congress ready for post-Labor Day session as "religious friendly" legislation awaits action. Church Electioneering Bill May Be Fast Tracked In Time For November," AANEWS, 2002-AUG-28
  3. Lanier Swann, "Reps. Crane, Jones and Pitts criticize IRS rules for church advocacy," 2002-JUL-16, at: 

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Site navigation: Home page > Religious laws > here

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Copyright 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-AUG-29
Latest update: 2002-SEP-4
Author: B.A. Robinson

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