By Kent Willis, Executive Director
Ken Cuccinelli is wrong so often about constitutional rights that it takes a moment to realize when he’s right.
I didn’t attend yesterday’s highly publicized meeting in which our attorney general addressed an assembly of ministers about their political rights. From what I’ve read, though, he took most of his remarks right out of the ACLU policy manual.
Cuccinelli told the religious leaders that their churches may officially participate in public advocacy, but that there are limits.
The restraints on political involvement by religious organizations is not, as many think, the result a Supreme Court ruling on separation of church and state. In fact, churches are perfectly free to become as deeply involved in politics as they wish, except that nearly all of them have voluntarily given up that right by incorporating as tax-exempt organizations.
Churches, like other charitable non-profits, have chosen to strike a deal with the devil – a.k.a. IRS – that increases their revenues by making donations to them tax-deductible and by exempting them from paying taxes.
In return, the churches agree to curb their involvement in politics. It takes IRS a lot of ink to describe all the rules for religious organizations, but it boils down to this: Churches can engage in a wide variety of advocacy, educational and charitable services, so long as they limit their lobbying to a small fraction of their expenditures and they don’t do anything that can be interpreted as endorsing candidates running for office.
Cuccinelli apparently used his face time with ministers to encourage them to become more involved in politics and even pointed out that when they are not representing the church they are free not only to endorse candidates, but may even run for public office.
This reminds me of something we often say to public officials about their religious activities. We tell them they are free as individuals to engage in any kind of religious activity they choose. It is only when they represent the government that they need to be careful about expressing religious beliefs.
When Rev. Hashmel Turner, a member of the Fredericksburg City Council, complained that he was not allowed to open council meetings with a sectarian prayer, we pointed out that in his private time he was free to pray as much as he wanted, and that he was even permitted during council deliberations to express his individual religious beliefs. What he was not allowed to do was to offer sectarian prayers when he was officially representing the government of Fredericksburg.
Sometimes it’s hard to separate individuals – be they ministers or elected officials – from the jobs or offices they hold. The line can be a fine one, and ministers who choose political involvement –for themselves or their churches – would be wise to pay careful attention to the IRS rules.
Unlike Ken Cuccinelli, the ACLU doesn’t encourage ministers or churches to become more politically involved. That’s their choice. But we’ll defend their right to do it, so as long as they are not violating their agreement with IRS.
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