Resource offers guide to churches engaging the political process - Word&Way

Resource offers guide to churches engaging the political process

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—Just weeks before voters head to the polls in the closely fought presidential election, a resource developed by faith groups and civil liberties leaders offers guidelines to churches hoping to influence the political process without violating legal restrictions.

Melissa Rogers

In a question-and-answer format, "Religious Expression in American Public Life: a Joint Statement of Current Law" addresses a range of issues, including whether religious groups can participate in the debate of public policy issues and what restrictions the Internal Revenue Code places on political activities of tax-exempt organizations such as churches.

"While the drafters of this document may disagree about how the legal line should be drawn between church and state, we have been able to come together and agree in many cases on what the law is today," said Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, which coordinated the project.

Participants were Christians from the evangelical, mainline and Catholic traditions, including both the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Also involved were Muslim, Jewish and Sikh leaders.

"As the campaign cycle moves toward November elections, the statement provides helpful guidance for tax-exempt organizations about the IRS rules that apply to their political activities," Rogers said. "It also helps voters understand how the First Amend-ment applies to the political activities of religious individuals and institutions.

"The role of religion in public life has long been a source of controversy and litigation," she added. "We brought together a diverse group of experts on law and religion to clarify what current law has to say about these matters."

Disagreement with tax-exempt restrictions prompted some pastors to launch "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" on Oct. 7, in which they planned to endorse political candidates and mail the taped sermons to the IRS—a direct challenge which they hope will result in court decisions overturning the rules.

The Brookings Institution originally released the 32-page document in 2010 and re-released it in July.

Rogers said it is the first resource to address such a wide spectrum of issues related to the role of religion in public life.

"As the nation debates the meaning of religious liberty, and what the law in this area does or does not do or should protect and prohibit, this guide can serve as a tool for civil and informed discussions," she said.

Among the issues the document addresses:

Q. May religious groups and people participate in the debate of public issues?

A. Yes. Religious individuals and groups, like nonreligious individuals and groups, have a right to participate in the debate on all issues that are important to political and civic life.

Q. Does the Internal Revenue Code place restrictions on the political activities of tax-exempt organizations, including tax-exempt religious organizations?

A. Yes. If groups wish to qualify for and maintain status as tax-exempt organizations under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, they must not become involved in campaign activity for or against candidates for elective political office, and no substantial part of their activities may be spent attempting to influence legislation.

Q. May government officials' religious beliefs inform public policy?

A. Government officials' religious beliefs may inform their policy decisions so long as advancing religion is not the predominant purpose or primary effect of governmental action.