Pulpit Politics

Posted Oct. 13, 2009, at 5:54 p.m.

The Roman Catholic Church in Maine is working hard to pass Question 1, the citizen ballot initiative that would repeal the state’s recently enacted law that allows same-sex marriage. The Portland diocese distributed a DVD that was shown in churches around the state in which Bishop Richard Malone argues for repealing the law, and churches have passed the plate for donations for the effort. The church’s activism on the issue has, understandably, angered many on the other side of the question, but it also has raised the eyebrows of some Catholics who do not share the bishop’s view.

Amid the clamor on Question 1, some have suggested the Catholic Church and other churches are exceeding the parameters of their tax-exempt status by choosing sides in what are political matters, at least in the sense that they are decided at the ballot booth. To shed light on that claim, the nature of and reasons for those parameters must be understood.

It might be supposed that the ban on church electioneering rises from the early days of American democracy. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, the church was often the largest and most influential institution in a town. But in fact, the ban is much more recent.

In 1954, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson worked to amend the Internal Revenue Service tax code for nonprofit organizations so they could not participate in political candidate campaigns. Since then, many churches have completed the IRS paperwork to become 501(c)(3) organizations, although there is no requirement to do so.

Another facet of the tax-exempt status is that all 501(c)(3) organizations adhere to the same rules, whether they are religious or not. The conservative advocacy group Maine Heritage Policy Center, the Portland Museum of Art and the local First Baptist Church all must adhere to the same rules, says Zach Heiden, legal director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

In 1987, Congress amended the language to strengthen the ban on electioneering to include opposition to a candidate for office. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in the coming months on a case stemming from a documentary about Hillary Clinton created by a nonprofit group; federal election officials ruled the film was electioneering.

Civil libertarians suggest the ban on churches conducting candidate advocacy should be lifted. And there is a good argument for that change, beyond extending the First Amendment. As seen in the Catholic Church’s role in the Question 1 debate, the church must answer to its members when it takes such a stand. Those members can object or support, or split over the issue. Such responses would moderate a church’s stand on issues and candidates.

But a more compelling argument is found in a U.S. District Court ruling that summarizes the reasons for keeping the current rules in place: “The government has a compelling interest in maintaining the integrity of the tax system and in not subsidizing partisan political activity, and Section 501(c)(3) is the least restrictive means of accomplishing that purpose.”

The fallout of the church’s role in Question 1 may be a move toward more restriction.

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