Friday, July 02, 2004

Tax-Exempt Churches Risk Nonprofit Status By Campaigning For Bush

According to the Washington Post (July 1, 2004) and CNN (July 2, 2004), the Bush-Cheney 04 campaign has distributed guides to church volunteers, asking them, among other things, to forward their church membership directories to the campaign. Copies of this job description are available at www.talkingpointsmemo.com and the Website of the Washington Post.

Pastors and church boards would be wise to consult legal counsel before engaging in such activity, as coordination with the Bush or other political campaigns may cause them to lose their nonprofit status. In addition to the legal ramifications, churches risk alienating their members by giving up this list, which most nonprofit organizations guard dearly as their most valuable asset. The Constitution protects the freedom of religion for just this reason, so that people can be free to practice their beliefs without interference by the government or candidates for office.

On the other hand, churches could provide a great public service by serving as a place to register voters and hold non-partisan debates. We aren’t lawyers here at nonprofitblog, so you are urged to check out our advice with your attorney. But here are some suggestions for churches that want to engage their congregations in the democratic process while protecting their nonprofit status:
1. The board of directors should adopt a firm policy against sharing, selling, or trading their membership list with any outside group. Period.
2. The board and clergy should make this policy very clear with their members, explaining that they wish to guard their privacy and that members who give away their own copy of the directory to outsiders will be sanctioned.
3. The board and clergy might want to hold a non-partisan debate of all candidates for local office, such as Mayor or State Legislator. Consider showing the national presidential debates on a big screen at the congregation for your members.
4. Without pushing for any political party or candidate, hold a voter registration drive at your congregation.
5. Make it clear that your church does not support any particular candidate, but feels it is important to support democracy through voting. You are more likely to be able to fend off any challenge to your nonprofit status if you have a clear, published policy to this effect.
6. If the board or clergy notice that members are campaigning at the church for a particular candidate or if you find out a directory has been given to a candidate, pull this member aside and clearly state that this is unacceptable and could jeopardize the church’s nonprofit status. Document your conversation and actions in a follow up letter using registered mail to ensure it was received. Keep a copy of your letter and documentation.

If you have questions about what is allowed, contact your state’s Attorney General and/or the Secretary of State. Consider retaining a lawyer to review your church policies to ensure you are compliant with the law.