Clergy on Politics

Does ordination mean a Catholic priest gives up his right to speak out on political issues? Does a minister, rabbi or imam have to remain silent when asked which candidate he or she favors? And does the Internal Revenue Service’s ban on political activity by churches rule them out as sites for candidate forums or voter registration drives?

The answers to those and similar questions are yes, no or maybe, depending on the circumstances, according to a legal expert whose specialty is the tax-exempt status of religious organizations.


“We all know that during election campaign season, politicians visit all sorts of locations looking for votes,” said Deirdre Dessingue, associate general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Sometimes, they visit churches for the same reason.”

“There is nothing wrong with a candidate standing outside a church, synagogue, mosque or temple after services in order to meet and greet voters,” she added. “Inside the church, the situation is more difficult to evaluate.”

Factors that the I.R.S. might consider in evaluating whether the candidate’s appearance violates the ban on political intervention by tax-exempt organizations include whether the candidate was invited by a congregation or is a member of the congregation and whether other candidates were invited, even if on successive weeks, Dessingue said.

As U.S. voters prepare to elect the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate and countless state officeholders on Nov. 5, Congress took up the debate over political activity by religious groups.

By a vote of 239 to 178 on Oct. 2, the House defeated the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, which would have exempted religious organizations—but not other tax-exempt groups—from the ban on intervening in a political campaign.

The U.S.C.C.B. had taken no position on the legislation, which was supported by such groups as the Christian Coalition and Association of Christian Schools International but opposed by the Anti-Defamation League, People for the American Way and others.

“Supporters of this bill wrongly argued that religious viewpoints are currently muzzled in the public arena,” said Abraham H. Foxman, A.D.L.’s national director, after the House vote. “But ministers, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders are already permitted to speak out on the full scope of religious, political and moral issues of the day.... The House has acted wisely in rejecting the bill as bad public policy and unnecessary.”

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, was even more blunt. “Most Americans do not want their churches turned into smoke-filled rooms where political deals are cut and partisan politics replaces worship,” he said.

But Representative Walter Jones, Republican of North Carolina and chief sponsor of the legislation, pledged to reintroduce the bill in the next session of Congress.

“I will continue this fight because I believe this battle can be won and will be won,” he said. “Congress must return First Amendment rights to our houses of worship.”

Confusion over the ban on political activity by tax-exempt organizations has existed since it was first imposed by Congress in 1954 under an amendment offered by then-Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson.

To combat some of that confusion, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked Ms. Dessingue to write a guide to the I.R.S. rules and published it under the title, Politics and the Pulpit: A Guide to the Internal Revenue Code Restrictions on the Political Activity of Religious Organizations.

“No matter where one stands on the debated issues, we believe it is helpful to have a statement of the requirements of current law on this subject, particularly as congregations and other religious organizations face a host of election-related questions,” said Melissa Rogers, executive director of the Pew Forum, in an introduction to the guide.

The guide makes clear that members of the clergy do not have to give up their right to speak out on political matters.

“Clergy or other religious leaders, in their individual capacities and outside the context of any religious organization, function or publication, may endorse or oppose candidates and otherwise participate in election campaigns,” it says. “In doing so, however, religious leaders should clearly indicate that their actions are personal and not undertaken as representative of their religious organizations.”

Lobbying activities on referendums, constitutional amendments or similar ballot initiatives are permitted, but must not constitute “more than an ‘insubstantial’ part of the organization’s total activities.”

Candidate forums, voter registration or get-out-the-vote drives and publication of voter education materials are permitted as long as they are unbiased, open to all candidates for a particular office and do not feature information about the religious organization’s stands on the issues discussed.

Concern over what it sees as an increasing influence of religion in public life led another group—American Atheists of Parsippany, N.J., founded by the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair—to take to the streets.

The group announced in early October that it would sponsor a Godless Americans March on the National Mall in Washington three days before the election.

“Godless Americans have been marginalized and excluded in everything from electoral politics to the public events commemorating the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001,” said an announcement on the march’s Web site. “No other group would tolerate such bigotry and exclusion! It’s time to speak out and be heard.”

As long as they don’t speak out about political candidates.

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