Project Fair Play: Americans United to Educate Religious Leaders about Laws Governing Church Electioneering

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Project Fair Play: Americans United to Educate Religious Leaders about Laws Governing Church Electioneering


Boston, Rob, Church & State


Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean readily acknowledges that he's never been one to wear his religion on his sleeve. But that hasn't stopped him from making a spate of visits at predominantly African-American churches in South Carolina, trying to connect with voters in advance of that state's important primary election.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush--no stranger to the pulpit himself--continues to use religious rhetoric in his public pronouncements. Reflecting on the capture of toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in mid December, Bush told reporters, "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to humanity. The arrest of Saddam Hussein changed the equation in Iraq. Justice was being delivered to a man who denied that gift from the Almighty to the people of Iraq."

With the election just 10 months off, religion is suddenly the hot topic of campaign '04--and indications are that America's houses of worship will be frequent targets for politicking and vote seeking. Pollsters and pundits have been paying increasing attention to the role religion plays in voting behavior, and the candidates are taking notice. Several Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Dean, the former Vermont governor, have already been making the rounds in churches. Bush frequently speaks before religious audiences as well.

Houses of worship can interact with politics in numerous appropriate and legal ways, but if they are not careful, they can violate the nation's tax laws and jeopardize their tax-exempt status. To make sure the latter does not happen, Americans United in 1996 launched Project Fair Play, a nationwide effort to educate religious leaders about the laws governing political activity.

In a nutshell, federal tax law allows houses of worship to address political, social and moral issues. Pastors may speak out for or against legal abortion, gun control or other issues. They may argue for tax increases or tax cuts. There is no barrier to the discussion of issues in church.

Houses of worship may also host voter forums, sponsor nonpartisan voter registration drives and encourage parishioners to vote.

But houses of worship, like all other non-profit groups holding the 501(c)(3) designation, may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Religious leaders may not tell parishioners whom to vote for or whom not to vote for. They may not distribute a candidate's campaign material in church or use church resources to promote or attack an office-seeker. (Members of the clergy may, as private citizens, endorse candidates.)

Despite attempts by the Religious Right and its congressional allies to change the Internal Revenue Service Code in recent years (see "Pulpit Politics," page 4), the provision barring outright electioneering in churches remains the law of the land. …

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