Public Policy and Political Action: Permissible Activities for Catholic Schools

Article excerpt

The presidential election process is an opportunity to help students and their families understand the importance of engaging in the political process in a manner that reflects their commitment to their faith, justice and social responsibility

"I the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue and participation in political life is a moral obligation" (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, USCCB, 2007, 2011).

This document, published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops each election cycle, addresses the importance of civic responsibility for promoting the common good. Individuals are exhorted "to bring moral principles to the debate and decisions about candidates and issues." However, for institutions engaging in public discourse, there are distinctions to be made between advocating for policy positions and support for or opposition to political candidates.

All Catholic institutions may engage in activities that seek to influence the formation of public policy issues supported by the church and, to a limited extent, actively engage in lobbying for specific legislation. This type of civic participation is different from campaigning for or against candidates. Individuals representing themselves may engage in campaign politics but, for tax-exempt institutions, activities during election campaigns are subject to restraints that are not applicable to personal, individual actions.

For Catholic schools and parishes, partisan political activity is restricted by section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and the directives of the local ordinary. Although some actions may be permissible under IRS rulings, such as inviting all candidates to speak at a church venue, a bishop may choose to disallow the practice in his diocese.

Churches, schools and other nonprofit tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from participating or intervening in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. This prohibition is absolute, and its violation can result in forfeiture of tax-exempt status. However, there are some activities that schools and parishes may sponsor to help members form their consciences and take politically responsible positions during the election cycle. These are some permissible activities:

Voter Registration

Church organizations can encourage members to participate in the elec! toral process and become active in the political life of the community. They may sponsor non-partisan voter registration drives on church property.

Distribution of Educational Materials

Schools and parishes may educate students and parishioners about policy issues in light of the church's teachings and the Gospel imperatives for social justice. If campaign literature is distributed by the organization, materials from all of the candidates must be accessible equally to all. Individual campaign workers may not be permitted to distribute partisan campaign fliers on church property.

In addition to the issues, schools may educate voters about candidates' positions through educational materials that must be unbiased in content, format and context. The candidates may not be rated, labeled or coded in any way that would infer or indicate that the institution is endorsing or opposing their candidacy

Educating candidates and political parties about particular issues to which an organization is committed, in an effort to persuade them to endorse or agree with the organization's position, is permitted. Each presidential election cycle, NCEA submits a statement of its education policy positions to the platform committees and the candidates of the two major parties. The text of the 2012 statements may be found on the NCEA website at http://www. …