Churches, Political Advocacy and Nonprofit Tax Status
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President in Michigan this past Tuesday. As he has stepped up his pursuit for the highest office in the land, the press has stepped up its attention to Romney’s religion. Romney is Mormon, and given that he’s running as the most conservative of the social values conservatives, his religion matters not only because non-Christian faith always seems to matter with presidential candidates, but also because he’s going to need a whole lot of Evangelical Christian support.
The media may be wrong in covering the ‘horse race’ of the campaign this early, but they are not in error in starting to pay attention to the role faith could play. While we’re all thinking about faith, however, we ought to go ahead and give some thought to the role churches could play, too—as in the nonprofit, tax-exempt institutions that organized religions establish to house not only their worship, but also their activities. Churches are increasingly butting up against the line meant to separate their tax-exempt status from substantial advocacy activities.
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.