Are churches following the law when it comes to politics?

Posted at 7:56 PM, Oct 17, 2012
and last updated 2012-10-17 19:56:01-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - Church is a place people go to hear scripture, to find solace, to seek guidance -- but do people want to go to church to talk politics?

In this heated political season, more churches are speaking out on the issues.

Last week, hundreds turned out for a service at Cedar Street Baptist Church to hear Reverend Al Sharpton speak. While its intent was solely to register voters, some considered it a rally in support of President Obama.

“We don’t push politics,” argues Cedar Street pastor Dr. Anthony Chandler. “I cannot tell my congregation who to vote for, but I want them to vote, that’s important to me.”

While some pastors say they try and steer clear of politics in the pulpit, others believe the church should play a role in helping people apply the churches’ teachings to their everyday lives, including their political beliefs.

“You cannot lock religion into an hour on Sunday,” argues Reverend Wayne Ball, a pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Church Hill.

This past Sunday, the Catholic Diocese raised eyebrows when churches included an insert in their programs, grading the candidates on the major issues.

Ball says both the republican governor and a democratic delegate worship at St. Patrick’s on Sundays.

“I had people from both ends of the spectrum comment about the insert,” Ball says. “I thought, well, if the right commented about it, and the left commented about it, we must have gotten it right.”

Since this country’s founding, politics and religion have often intersected. However, churches are considered a 501(c) 3 organization, and are restricted when it comes to preaching politics to their congregations.

Ann Hodges, a professor of non-profit law at the University of Richmond, says some churches do endanger their tax-exempt status by speaking out on political issues.

“There are some churches that are challenging the IRS,” Hodges says.

According to The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, last year churches in the U.S. received $96 billion in tax-free contributions.

Churches not only receive federal tax breaks on donations, but they are exempt from state and local property taxes.

In order to receive such benefits, the IRS says churches must steer clear of political endorsements.

“They can do things like voter education, voter registration, those sorts of activities,” argues Hodges. “What they can’t do is endorse a candidate.”

While the IRS has stripped churches of their tax-exempt status in the past, the government organization has not done so since 2009. Several pastors have successfully argued in court that their rights are protected by freedom of speech.

Both Reverend Ball and Dr. Chandler say they’re careful not to cross the line when it comes to preaching to their congregations. However, both say they believe it is the churches place to help educate parishioners on the issues that influence their lives.

“We don’t push politics,” Chandler says. “But we do push our voice and our voice should be heard.”