Written by Don Byrd
Laws that prohibit campaign activity by tax-exempt organizations like religious entities address more than just direct, official pulpit endorsements. IRS guidelines concerning the so-called Johnson Amendment note that other activities implicitly favoring one candidate over another are also impermissible.
[C]ertain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.
On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.
Word & Way Editor Brian Kaylor reports on a situation in Missouri that seems to test the boundary of this rule, and is a good opportunity to highlight these important regulations. There, Hannibal-LaGrange University, a Baptist institution, has issued an invitation to one U.S. Senate candidate but not his opponent. Brian Kaylor writes:
Anthony Allen, president of HLGU, confirmed to Word&Way that the school had not invited Hawley’s opponent, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, to speak in chapel this semester. He also answered “no” when asked if he was concerned that the lack of an invite to McCaskill would put HLGU out of line with IRS rules.
Allen noted that they “have extended invitations in the past” to McCaskill that she did not accept, and that he “even volunteered to use Hannibal-LaGrange where they might have a debate” in this campaign. Yet, past invites to McCaskill outside the current campaign cycle would not satisfy the IRS rule.
As the BJC’s Amanda Tyler explains later in Kaylor’s piece:
“Nonpartisan political activity, like hosting candidate forums and other voter education events, are permissible, but the IRS has said that biased events that promote one candidate over another would cross the line. To avoid violating the law, best practices include stating explicitly that the organization does not support or oppose candidates for public office — both at the event itself and in any publicity of the event — and inviting all candidates for that office to speak at the same or equivalent event.”
As election day gets closer, these issues become increasingly important, and the lines get more fragile. 2 years away from an election, a guest speaker may not imply endorsement in a way that it will 2 weeks from the start of voting, when all attention on that individual revolves around their candidacy. Religious organizations should protect not just their tax-exempt status but also their autonomy as campaign season arrives. Host all candidates, or none at all and maintain a healthy distance from the pitfalls of religious entanglement with electoral politics.