Religious Leaders Call for Lifting Ban on Endorsements of Political Candidates

A new report issued by a group of religious leaders argues for ending the decades-old ban on clergy explicitly endorsing political candidates, the Washington Post reports.

The report, Government Regulation of Political Speech by Religious and Other 501(c)(3) Organizations (94 pages, HTML), argues that the ban chills free speech and violates the culture of those who see "engagement in political communications" as essential to their religious practice. Compiled by the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations — which counts among its members leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and Assemblies of God and large nonprofit organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Esperanza, one of the biggest Latino evangelical groups in the country — the report was presented earlier this week to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), whose office has investigated potential abuses of the tax code by exempt groups for years. A spokesperson told the Post that Grassley "is weighing next steps."

The commission was advised by a religiously and politically diverse group of sixty-six faith leaders, a subset of which wrote an opposition paper arguing that the ban "has served to protect houses of worship in America from government regulation and from divisive partisan politics dividing the church communities." The Rev. Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister who heads Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, told the Post that his group has brought multiple examples to the IRS of clergy preaching against President Obama and that no action has been taken to date. "This whole thing has a fox-guarding-the-henhouse feel to it, and always has," said Lynn.

Experts and leaders of the commission told the Post that most clergy are not inclined to endorse candidates because they worry about alienating members of their congregations. The report, subtitled "Why the Status Quo Is Untenable and Proposed Solutions," points to the vague and complex language of IRS regulations and inconsistent enforcement of the ban by the agency. The report's recommendations, which would apply to secular tax-exempt organizations as well, include maintaining the ban on the use of tax-deductible funds for political purposes. "We think this [report] would allow for respect without creating a monster — that churches could become in essence [political action committees]," said commission chair Michael Batts, founding partner of Batts, Morrison, Wales and Lee, an accounting firm that specializes in faith-based nonprofits. "If they had money and could disburse it for political activities, that would be problematic, but this is just speech — saying what you believe."

Michelle Boorstein. "Report Argues for Lifting Ban on Politics From the Pulpit." Washington Post 08/13/2013.