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!

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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. Phil Ferguson says:

    Doesn’t this prohibition concerning churches being involved in politics violate the First Amendment – which guarantees freedom of speech & freedom of religion?

    As I recall, it was Lyndon Johnson who pushed through Congress this bill, which became law in 1954.

  2. TimH says:

    First, I think Paula is completely wrong regarding ADF. From what I have heard they are a great organization and they have been highly successful in a wide range of very challenging case work.

    Second, concerning the promotion of political ideas from a “Church / Pastor” perspective I would be concerned whether my pastor or parish leadership were in line with authentic Catholic teaching. In many parishes the vast majority have become so conformed to the culture as to support what is clearly and consistently rejected by the Church. What percentage of “Catholics” supported Obama regardless of his positions on abortion? What percentage support homosexual marriage, or contraceptive use? We may be pining for the Church to speak out clearly on moral issues… I just pray the voices are clearly and authentically “Catholic”!

  3. Davide says:

    Maybe the Catholic Church losing it’s tax exempt status would not bee so bad. They could Incorporate and have great political status and the state would live in fear of the Church. Maybe America needs a absolute Catholic Monarch I know Europe is in desperate need of a change.

    1. Teep says:

      Davide,
      I’ve read your comments for a long time, so I know you’re inciting a reaction on purpose. I’ll put it this way: do you want charitable donations taxed? should an organization be taxed because they receive freely given gifts of monetary support? I don’t think so. Taxing charity is like reprimanding a child for getting an A. While the church does have land and investment, the day to day operations of virtually every parish in the US are funded by the tithing of its parishioners. So, do you think your money should be worth less to the church than it is for, say, the united way or unicef? I don’t think so. The push for removing the church’s tax exempt status comes from the misguided point of view that the church is either: A. run like a corporate enterprise, with the Pope as CEO and President. He can change the ‘mission statement’ of the corporation as he pleases. OR B. The church is using its current status as a front to protect itself since it’s the only way it can practically protect its so-called ‘bigoted’ point of view regarding marriage and the family. Or else it’s some combination of the two, plus some other ideas I’ve missed.

  4. Patrick says:

    If you want to get into the weeds on the issues, the USCCB Office of General Counsel provides an extensive resource to give guidance on political activity and lobbying. http://www.usccb.org/ogc/guidelines.shtml

    1. Thomas Peters says:

      Patrick – thank you, very helpful – I’ve included your link in an update to the post.

  5. Skip West says:

    Here is an interesting question: if tax-exempt status for churches is taken away, will churches then be able to openly influence and lobby? I would think yes.

    1. Thomas Peters says:

      Skip yes, unless they incorporated under a different tax structure that also carries with it injunctions against certain types of political activity (the Knights of Columbus, for instance, are a 501c8 – a fraternal organization, I believe, which carries with it their own unique rights and privileges).

    2. Phil says:

      I think it’s worth pointing out that paying taxes is not a punishment, either. It’s a civic responsibility, which can be avoided under certain very specific circumstances. If a church chooses to be a place of sanctuary, a center for a faith community, and also a political lobbying group, it absolutely has that right. But political lobbying groups must follow the law.

      1. Bruce says:

        Religion has every right to be involved in the political process. And, considering that the Catholic Church is primarily responsible for formulating the very civilization you and I live in, it would be irresponsible of Her not to be involved. That being said, it is clear why the Church is tax-exempt and should remain so.

  6. Paula says:

    The Alliance Defense Fund has one of the worst litigation records of any lobbying group. They win a few high profile cases, but the vast majority are lost in the courts. As a constitutional lawyer, I’d take issue with their reading on items #1 and #2. In laymen’s terms, courts have found that merely mentioning the candidate could be construed as an endorsement of the candidate, which is prohibited. I’d also say #8 is incorrect. Additionally, you have reprinted their list without including the footnotes, which contain important clarifications. Long story short, a church should consult with their lawyer before they walk into these issues. There have indeed been cases where church’s tax exempt status have been removed by the IRS for significant periods of time even though you don’t know about them.

    1. Thomas Peters says:

      Paula – I have a very different impression of ADF’s success rate as a litigating firm. Can you cite sources for all the claims you make?

      1. paula says:

        ADF’s overall success rate in litigation is 12.2%

        1. Laura P says:

          Thomas did ask for sources, Paula. I’d like to see them, too.

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