IRS regulations specifically address nonprofit groups, not churches. Nonprofits may not engage in partisan politics, though they may be involved in advocacy and legislative activism. Nevertheless, nonprofits must be careful because they risk losing their tax exemption if a substantial part of their activity can be construed as political.
Churches don't have such protection. The unwritten ban on political activity in churches can be traced back to the days when Lyndon B. Johnson was attacked as a senator by Southern Baptist pastors for his stance on civil rights. However, the IRS rarely took action against churches until pro-choice groups challenged Roman Catholic pro-life activity, and the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority began mobilizing churches to become more politically active.
Pastors should also be careful about crossing the IRS in individual actions. "I'm not sure that a pastor can differentiate between the public and the private in ministry," says Michael P. Mosher, a Chicago attorney who specializes in churches and political activity. "A pastor has to appreciate that in the congregation and the community he or she will become immutably identified with the church."
Until the Pierce Creek lawsuit is resolved, Sekulow advises churches to be cautious about political advocacy. "Don't endorse or campaign for candidates," Sekulow says. "But do speak about moral issues and political consequences from the pulpit."
What Churches Can Do
Churches can host a forum for candidates as long as candidates from all parties are invited and can express their views. Such a forum is considered educational. The law is less clear about having individual candidates speak at a Sunday service. It may be okay as long as all candidates receive an invitation to speak. But the question then arises: Does the church have to invite every candidate, even of minor groups? That could be dozens of people.
Frank Sommerville, an attorney from Houston, Texas, is uneasy with any kind of church-sponsored political activity. "I get uncomfortable even with nonpartisan forums," Sommerville says. "I also have a problem with the Christian Coalition voter guides because they edit candidate answers and advise, even subtly, on how a Christian should vote."
In view of the Pierce Creek lawsuit, the best advice to churches today is to be wary of even passive political activity. Think twice before putting a candidate's literature on your church's bulletin board or letting a member leave brochures on your information table, as did Second Baptist Church in Houston. The Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a complaint with the IRS concerning the church. Second Baptist has heard nothing from the IRS since, but that doesn't excuse the possible threat.
Churches should reconsider giving meeting room space to political groups. Allowing members to distribute political literature on church property crosses the line, too.
If a pastor wants to be politically active, he must be explicit about speaking as a private citizen, not as a church leader. "If a minister is doing public speaking about politics, it shouldn't be from the pulpit because he or she can't disclaim the pastoral role," attorney Mosher says. "And if the minister is not speaking in the church but is in clerical dress—robes, clerical collars—it's hard to separate him from the church."
In the United States, churches receive the privilege of tax-exempt status at the cost of outright political involvement. Churches must be salt and light in their communities, but they must act wisely if they wish to retain their tax-exempt status.