FFRFMCC Commentary Submitted by: Tom Cara, Director, FFRFMCC
As we quickly approach the 2016 general election, it has become very apparent that religious organizations are viewing the presidential campaign as yet another opportunity to snub their pious noses at rules and regulations they feel should apply to everyone else but them. Religious leaders are becoming more and more openly bold about political intervention, with the expectation of maintaining their tax-exempt status. This has come to be known as “Pulpit Politicking,” which is in violation of IRS code 501c3. This code states:
“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” – IRS code 501c3
Restrictions under the IRS code also explain that 501c3 non-profits can engage in such activities as voter education, as long as it is conducted in a non-partisan manner. In other words, should a church, temple, synagogue, mosque or other 501c3 religious organization decide to “educate” its members regarding political issues by inviting a candidate running for public office to speak to them, it would be obligated to ensure that all candidates for that office are given the same opportunity. According to the IRS “Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations,” the following can be found on page 11:
Inviting a Candidate to Speak – Equal Opportunity to Participate
“Like any other Section 501(c)(3) organization, in determining whether candidates are given an equal opportunity to participate, a church or religious organization should consider the nature of the event to which each candidate is invited, in addition to the manner of presentation. For example, a church or religious organization that invites one candidate to speak at its well attended annual banquet, but invites the opposing candidate to speak at a sparsely attended general meeting, will likely be found to have violated the political campaign prohibition, even if the manner of presentation for both speakers is otherwise neutral.”
In the cases we have observed during this general election campaign, it has not been a question of one candidate being given a high-profile platform (such as a convention or conference) and another a lower profile platform, but rather a case of presidential candidates having been given exclusive opportunity to speak to specific religious organizations and leaders without giving the same equal opportunity to opponents. And it’s safe to assume that every underling member these leaders are supposed to represent may not always support the same political candidate, as they do the same god. And religious organizations, in order to maintain their tax-exempt status, must not just recognize this fact, but also show respect for it.
The problem is, this unusual election cycle has changed what the norm should be regarding the conduct of political politicking by religious leaders. Christian church leaders in particular are showing clear preference for their choice of presidential candidates, and at the same, apparently no fear of the IRS in doing so.
While Republican nominee Donald Trump has somehow managed to garner the love and admiration of the evangelical community (you know, the “Family Values” people), he is now trying to bolster his poll numbers with the African-American community through the help of some church leaders who obviously prefer him over the other candidates. Donald Trump has been invited to give speeches to the members of several predominantly African-American Christian groups.
The first was Great Faith Ministries in Detroit, MI, at the request of its pastor Wayne T. Jackson. Jackson told his congregation, “This will not be a rally or an endorsement of Donald Trump, but rather an attempt to get answers from him regarding how he would help inner-city communities.” The pastor was then quoted as saying he is “hopeful we will get to interview Mrs. Clinton as well.” The video recorded “interview” of course turned out to be nothing but an infomercial for Donald Trump. After which, Mr. Trump was then given a platform to address the pastor’s congregation.
At this time, it has not been apparent that Clinton or any other presidential candidates have been given the same platform at Great Faith Ministries Church.
Trump also ventured to Flint, MI and spoke at Bethel United Methodist Church at the request of Pastor Faith Green Timmons. Those in attendance were given a pamphlet indicating Mr. Trump’s speech “in no way represents an endorsement.” It was obvious Mr. Trump fully expected, based on past experience with speaking to church groups, to be allowed to stump for himself in a place where he shouldn’t. And we give credit to Pastor Timmons for sticking to that declaration (and showing concern for her church’s tax-exempt status) by interrupting Trump when he began to criticize his opponent Hillary Clinton by telling him he was invited only to thank church members for the good work they had done during the Flint water crisis, and not to give a political speech. On the other hand, why were the other presidential candidates not invited to speak at Bethel United Methodist Church as well?
Trump’s most recent invitation to speak to religious groups occurred when openly Trump supporter Reverend Darrell Scott brought him to his New Spirit Revival Church in Cleveland, OH. This event, which took place during something called the “Midwest Values and Vision Pastors & Leadership Conference,” included Trump’s vice presidential running mate Mike Pence. It was organized by Rev. Scott along with Pastor Frank Amedia of Touch Heaven Ministries, who has made many derisive comments about the LGBT community, and had been designated last spring as Trump’s “Liaison for Christian Policy.” Although I am not aware of a “Liaison for Muslim Policy,” or “Jewish Policy,” or “Non-theist Policy” having been initiated by Mr. Trump.
This conference also featured another “special guest,” Michael Cohen, who heads up something Donald Trump created called the “National Diversity Coalition.” Cohen is famous for such ridiculous comments as “spousal rape does not exist,” citing 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 which obligates wives to submit to sex. And Donald Trump has been very vocal about his desire to eliminate the Johnson Amendment, which was a 1954 change to the tax code prohibiting tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
On the other side of the political party aisle, the National Baptist Convention, chock full of approximately 4,000 Baptist clergy member delegates, invited Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to speak in early September. Clinton took full advantage of the opportunity to “speak to the choir.” During her speech, Clinton emphasized her own “personal salvation” for all the mistakes she’s made in her life. Something many politicians feel they can say to try and negate any punishment or consequences when they’ve been caught red-handed doing something un-Christian-like.
And nothing pumps up a crowd of religious leaders more than hearing a presidential candidate speak like one of their own.
In July, Clinton spoke at the national AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church Conference in Philadelphia. Clinton opened her speech by “Giving all praise and honor to God.” She then went on to thank all the many AME bishops who made it possible for her to address the conference. But those same bishops did not present the same opportunity to other presidential candidates. She then continued her religious sermon by saying, “The book of Micah tells us the Lord’s requirements for each of us, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” She also recited a quote from President Barack Obama who said, “The church is the beating heart of the African-American community.” No one would argue with words advocating for justice and loving kindness, but would she have suggested to a group of atheists, were she to ever speak to them, that we should walk humbly with a god? And would she have uttered the same quote from President Obama if she were to speak to one of the growing number of African-American non-theist groups, who probably do not regard the church as the “beating heart” of their secular community.
Without question, there are many churches and religious organizations that not only have political platforms that should be considered in violation of their 501c3 status, but many openly support political candidates and their agendas — some of which advocate for even the most despicable examples of biblical law. But the presidential candidates never seem to be willing to confront religious leaders regarding much of the harm conducted in the name of their god, specifically when it comes to discrimination and denying people their civil rights. For example, it would be nice to hear a candidate say just once to a religious group, “Okay, I think Jesus was a pretty good guy too, but could you folks maybe consider cutting back just a little bit on the misogyny and homophobia?”
One cannot really blame political candidates for being handed the opportunity to suck-up to such a powerful voting bloc as the Christian majority in this country And candidates of course have the right to speak wherever they are invited. But those candidates should also conduct themselves in a manner that acknowledges and respects IRS rules and regulations, and not enable religious organizations to get away with flaunting the rules. 501c3 organizations must be considered charitable. The term “charitable,” as defined by IRS code section 501c3:
“…is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.”
When only one political candidate is given a voice by a 501c3 organization, it flies in the face of exactly what the Johnson Amendment sought to eliminate. And that is to prevent political power to any organizations that fall under this definition of charitable. In other words, the government is not going to reward you by way of receiving tax-exempt donations just so you can use those donations to influence our political system.
What would happen if the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, or the American Humanist Association, all 501c3 organizations, invited one and only one presidential candidate to speak at their conventions, which might compel them to deliver some inspiring rational words from Robert Green Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, or even Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, instead of quotes from “Two” Corinthians, or the Book of Micah? I don’t think there is any question how the religious community, and the IRS, would react to that. And sadly, we still live in a political culture where a presidential candidate is very unlikely to even accept an invitation to speak at an event hosted by a non-theist group.
But religious organizations have long been provided with this shield that quietly designates special exemption for them from rules of which all others must abide, and is something they have now come to expect as an exclusive privilege.
Under IRS guidelines, 501c3 organizations can offer exclusive invitations to political candidates to speak at their events under the presumption they will be there as an individual and not as a candidate. If the latter, then the same opportunity must be presented to other candidates. In many cases where 2016 presidential candidates have been invited to speak to religious organizations, the reasons for the invitations are indeed ambiguous. Therefore, it is difficult to prove any attempts at violating the rules of their tax-exempt status.
One thing is certain though. Even if candidates were invited to speak as individuals, the invitations most likely would not have been extended if the invitees were not presidential candidates. And I don’t think there is any question the candidates accepted the invitations knowing full well this would benefit their campaign.
In cases where candidates are provided a platform to speak at a religious conference or convention (like the AME), they are given the opportunity to reach out to ministers and bishops who represent many different church congregations. From there, it is unknown what those ministers and bishops take back to their respective churches in terms of political views to their members. Particularly when they have heard from only one candidate.
This is indeed frustrating since 501c3 non-theist organizations respect the wall of separation and don’t make a habit of giving exclusive privilege to a political candidate by inviting them to speak at their functions. And when religious organizations do whatever they can to circumvent the regulations and get away with it, it does indeed provide them with an advantage in an election’s outcome. I suspect this is one of the main reasons why non-theists have such difficulty getting any recognition from candidates and elected officials as being an important voter demographic.
We sadly live in a reality where political candidates only have to worry about pandering to those Godly ones who claim to have a monopoly on morality over the rest of us — but yet harbor no guilt in bending, or even breaking the rules when it suits them.
Responses and comments to this commentary can be directed to: firstname.lastname@example.org