Chart: How Your Parish and Your Pastor Can Legally Lobby! (& still be tax-exempt)

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!

For too long and too often Catholic lay people, priests and bishops have not spoken out strongly enough about public issues for fear of “jeopardizing” the Church’s tax-exempt (501c3) status.

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!

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20 thoughts on “Chart: How Your Parish and Your Pastor Can Legally Lobby! (& still be tax-exempt)

  1. Jay McNally says:

    Hiding behind the IRS saves the Catholic Church and its bishops the embarrassment of encouraging people to vote pro-life and therefore not as Democrats in most national elections.

    In the Bible Belt Protestant pastors have openly challenged the IRS for several years by openly endorsing candidates from the pulpit. A Google search will turn up lots of links to articles on the topic. Below is one that I copied and pasted:

    Pastors test IRS ban on politics
    September 29, 2008
    |Bob Pool and My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writers

    Two Orange County ministers were among dozens across the country taking politics to the pulpit Sunday in hopes of influencing the Nov. 4 presidential election.

    Unlike some pastors elsewhere who endorsed Republican John McCain during “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” the two ministers stopped short of explicitly recommending that worshipers vote for either McCain or Democrat Barack Obama. But they were not shy about raising politics in church.

    1. GREG SMITH says:

      Jay ~ Just a quick note here that I believe thats what the bishops did in their “Faithful Citizenship” document. They didn’t endorse any candidate, but rather gave guidelines as to what Catholics ought to consider when making voting decisions. ~ Pax ~ Greg

  2. GREG SMITH says:

    Dear all: As an officer of two, non-religious, nonprofit corporations, I find this discussion fascinating. A few comments on what’s been posted so far. >>> First, thank you Thomas for publishing this article and to Patrick for the USCCB link. >>> Paula; I’d be interested to know if any of the churches suspended were Catholic or even mainstream Protestant. It sounds like something an “independent” fundamentalist church would do and I expect it would be for multiple and serious offences. Also, what is the source of the 12% figure? >>> Davide: If your parish and diocese give up their tax exempt status, are you prepared to up your contributions n by about 40% AND not get a deduction for them? >>> Tim H: The parish is controlled entirely by the Bishop. If it, or the pastor were to, for example, support a pro-abortion bill, they could be disciplined and even closed. Ditto for the pastor (See Fr. Godfrey Farrow Diocese of Fresno.) However, if most pastors were to freely speak out politically, your fears would be well founded. Given that most U.S. Catholics are Democrats, voted for Obama, opposed Proposition 8 etc. and, considering that priests come from that population they would on balance be pro-Democrat. ~~ ~~ Pax vobiscum ~~ Greg ~~PS: I have a friend, a knowledgeable Jew, who as a Democratic congressional candidate was invited to several Black churches to give a sermons on “The Jewish View of Justice” Not a word from the pulpit about his candidacy, however…. Unfortunately, even though the African American community turned out and voted for him, he lost.

  3. Brian C says:

    It seems like the basic summary of what a church (i.e. priest/pastor speaking during a homily/service) can and can’t do boils down to: He can give clues to which politicians the church supports/opposes without stating the candidates’ names. I wonder what the net effect would be in terms of percent of Catholic/Christian votes changed if a priest/pastor said “vote against Obama because he supports abortion rights” instead of “the Church opposes abortion rights, so study the candidates’ positions on the issue and vote accordingly”. To the readers of this blog who are predominantly orthodox Catholics that follow politics closely, it may seem that the difference is so subtle to be indistinguishable, but we live in a soundbyte, short attention span society. If the difference between these statements would produce a vote swing of any significant degree to the pro life candidates, I would think that it would be worth it to give up tax exempt status to get better politicians that will enact better laws.

  4. Scott W. says:

    “Tax the Church now”! is a common cry from our enemies. Their calculation is that the Church is just as greedy as they are and would rather shut up than lose tax exempt status. The problem is, like all agents of chaos, they can lose a hundred challenges to the Church’s tax exempt status, they only need to win once. So, hopefully the Church has a contingincy plan if they are suddenly faced with taxation.

  5. Gabriel Austin says:

    How comes it that the IRS has the authority to determine whether a religious body has exceeded its freedom to exercise its tenets? Is there an office of Theology in the IRS?

    The Constitution is quite clear in its requirements – which are negative. Congress may not interfere the exercise of religion. The attitude of threatening the loss of tax-exempt status seems part of the attitude that, for example, all money belongs to the government and any tax exemptions are gifts from the government – “tax expenditures”.

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