In Elections, Support Issues, Not Candidates

As another election season approaches, many of us are getting involved—and thinking about getting our congregations involved—in the political process. But what actions are permissible?

Americans United (AU) for Separation of Church and State, a public policy organization that advocates for religious freedom by supporting the separation of church and state, has developed guidelines for congregations to follow. Generally speaking, congregations can support issues, but not candidates. Supporting candidates courts the loss of tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service. Here are some of the AU guidelines.

Churches and other religious groups may do the following:

  • Address moral/political issues. Churches may speak out on political issues such as abortion, the death penalty, environmentalism, poverty, etc. They may pass resolutions  and communicate those views to politicians and the public.
  • Voter registration drives. Religious groups may register people to vote and encourage them to vote.
  • Candidate forums. Forums where all legally qualified candidates for office are invited to speak may be sponsored by religious groups.
  • Questionnaires determining where candidates stand on the issues must be sent to all candidates and cover a broad range of issues. The information gathered must be presented to the public in an unbiased fashion.
  • Avoid political activity with partisan overtones, including:
    • Endorsing/opposing candidates. Religious groups may not advise congregants or the public at large to vote for or against specific candidates or political parties.
    • Financial contributions to candidates. If religious groups collect money on behalf of, send checks to, or provide in-kind services to a candidate, they have violated the IRS code. Churches may not contribute to or set up political action committees or use a church letterhead to solicit contributions for candidates.
    • Partisan campaign literature. Distribution of biased voter guides or partisan campaign literature violates the IRS code.

The IRS prohibitions do not pertain to individuals. Pastors may put bumper stickers favoring candidates on their cars or work on behalf of a candidate during their free time. However, a minister who endorses a candidate at an official church function or through church publications has run afoul of the tax code. Religious leaders may not endorse candidates from the pulpit claiming "personal opinion."

Many Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations impose limits on themselves that are more severe than the IRS requires.

"Our policy," says M. Kent Mayfield, administrator of the First Unitarian Society in Madison, WI (1,126 members), "is to disavow any activity by any group or individual which could be construed as representing a congregational position on any election, candidacy or issue which is the focus of a decision to be made by the electorate."

In contrast, the First UU Society of San Francisco, CA (500), avoids endorsing candidates but does make statements on public issues.

Resources

For more information see the Americans United for Separation of Church and State website and that of the Unitarian Universalist Association's Washington Office.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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