The recent dust-up over a Minnesota Legislator’s office telling a Catholic priest he better watch out for his parish’s tax status if he intends to lobby for a marriage bill and this recent snotty op-ed by the editor of the Winona Daily News puts me in mind of something I’ve urgently wanted to write about for some time:
The Church Can Lobby!
The truth is, in practice, it is almost impossible for Catholic parishes and dioceses to face a real risk of losing their tax status over their lobbying efforts, as long as they follow some simple rules I’ll lay out below.
In fact, I am not aware of a single case in the United States of a Church losing its tax status over lobbying [see footnote below]. More commonly, stripping a Catholic parish or Christian church of its tax status is used purely as a threat (or an excuse) to ensure that churches remain silent on pressing moral issues of our day.
[For instance: how often have you heard progressive politicians criticize the Church when it is lobbying on environmental issues or the minimum wage? Was it ever brought up during the health care debate that liberal religious sisters shouldn’t be advocating for Obamacare to pass because of their org’s tax status? Isn’t it fascinating that the vast majority of times that the Church’s tax exempt status is brought up is when the Church is actively opposing political proposals favored by progressives and secularists?]
The Alliance Defense Fund has published a very helpful five page document that explains in detail the guidelines for “political activity” by Churches and Pastors. Here’s the handy chart – the first thing you will notice is how many activities parishes and pastors are perfectly able to do!
As you can see, the entire document is well worth reading. It explains what you see in the chart above in more detail. And it was prepared by smart lawyers familiar with the relevant laws.
UPDATE: The USCCB also provides extensive and detailed guidance on political activity undertaken by non-profit parishes and Catholic organizations on their website here.
Here’s the disclaimer: Make no mistake – the tax exemption of Churches in the U.S. will be seriously challenged in the coming years. And even following the laws noted above does not guarantee you freedom from harassment. And It’s always best to check with a lawyer. We are witnessing, particularly among progressive politicians, more and more mentions of the fact that they want to see the Churches’ tax exempt status stripped, so prudence is always the right course … along with bravery.
But what are we doing as a Church if we are so concerned over avoiding trouble that we allow our moral voice to be silenced by just the threat of harassment and bullying?
Many of the proposals being put forward today – from the redefinition of marriage, to the rejection of conscience clause provisions, to forcing religious adoption agencies to place kids with gay parents – carry with them serious risks to our religious liberty. The time to use the voice of the Church to oppose these damaging initiatives is before they have passed, while we can still do something about it, and not after.
Currently the attitude I sadly often see among many Catholics is that “the Church can’t lobby, but there may be small ways it can be a moral voice in the public square.” I’d like to see this attitude transform into the right one: “the Church CAN lobby and IS a moral voice in the public square, with some modifications to ensure that reasonable laws are being followed.”
In other words, the Church CAN Lobby, because Catholics have a right to their public voice.
So, print out this simple five-page document and start figuring out how to get your parish more active in serving the common good, because the laws of this country –at least for now, thank God– give you plenty of room to be an active and effective moral voice in the public square!
A final word of advice: always work closely with and ask the permission of your pastor first. Perhaps print out this five-page document and ask for a meeting with him to discuss ways that your parish can take a more active (and completely legal) role in promoting the common good.
And, if you want to tell your story about how you helped get your parish more engaged in fighting for the common good, please don’t hesitate to contact us. And do spread this good news far and wide!
Footnote – a friend helpfully points out:
No church has lost its tax-exempt status since 1992 – and that case was an obvious crossing of the line: “The last church to have its tax-exempt status revoked was the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, New York, in 1992. The church took out an ad in 1992 that read: “The Bible warns us to not follow another man in his sin, nor help him promote sin lest God chasten us and how then can we vote for Bill Clinton?”
Okay, so don’t do that!