Churches, Political Advocacy and Nonprofit Tax Status
PhilanthroMedia, one of the leading blogs on Philanthropy had an interesting post up yesterday by Tiziana Dearing of Harvard University. She is a leading expert on the functioning and governance of the Catholic Church as a nonprofit organization and on nonprofit organizations in general.
She has some interesting and highly relevant ideas in her post:
"Churches are houses of worship, and as such, their congregations do and should struggle with the pressing moral issues of the day, and the public policy options for addressing those issues. I would go so far as to suggest that people of faith who understand no connection between that faith and action in public life are missing part of the point. That being said, as I wrote in a column for Philanthropy News Digest in December, it is both appropriate and necessary for churches to draw a bright line between educating congregants about particular public policy ideas, and endorsing and working on behalf of particular candidates. When a church, in effect, organizes a congregation into a single voting block on behalf of a single candidate, they violate at least the intent of the prohibition against substantial advocacy that is a condition of tax exemption.
And if a church felt a moral obligation to work on behalf of a particular candidate? Our country has a long tradition of people of conscience breaking laws and violating regulations. It is called civil disobedience, and combines rejection of a single law with a desire to uphold the rule of law. The practice of civil disobedience entails breaking the law, but then also publicly and willingly accepting the legal consequences. That church can support its candidate. But then it should also publicly and willingly forgo its exemption if its actions are deemed to violate its tax-exempt status."