Diocese reminds churches, organizations about rules on political campaigning

As election day draws near, diocesan officials are reminding pastors, administrators and leaders of diocesan corporations of the legal restrictions on campaigning.

Churches and other organizations that are part of the Diocese of Nashville are classified by the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c)(3), or nonprofit agencies, and as such are exempt from paying income tax and can accept tax-deductible donations.

Those exemptions have always been interpreted as a privilege, not a right, diocesan Chief Administrative Officer and Vice Chancellor Brian Cooper wrote in a letter to pastors, administrators and executive directors of diocesan corporations.

“As with any privilege, the benefits afforded a tax-exempt organization can be amended or completely revoked,” Cooper wrote. “In order to retain the privileges afforded a 501(c)(3) organization, an organization must abide by the rules applicable to that privilege.”

One of the primary rules is that 501(c)(3) organizations not “participate in or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office,” Cooper added.

“The IRS interprets the political campaign intervention prohibition as absolute, meaning that a single act can cause an organization to lose its tax exemption, regardless of whether the act constitutes a substantial part of the organization’s activities,” Cooper wrote.

“Courts have not been sympathetic to any claims of First Amendment, Free Speech or Religious Freedom when this privilege is revoked due to a violation of this absolute prohibition against political intervention,” he added.

“With elections only weeks away and campaigning in full swing, we wanted to strongly advise everyone that there should be no activity which can be interpreted as supporting or opposing a particular candidate for public office,” Cooper said.

Examples of actions diocesan churches and agencies should take to avoid violating the prohibition on political intervention include:

  • There should be no campaigning or campaign materials in any form at any event on a tax-exempt entity’s property or at an event sponsored by an exempt entity.
  • If a candidate for office attends a function open to the public, such as a picnic, fish fry, gala or fundraising event, there should be no campaigning, distribution of voter materials, campaign materials, etc. allowed.
  • If a church maintains a bulletin, website or news release, there should be no references to candidates, either gratis or through paid advertising.
  • Yard signs for or against a particular candidate or any other type of campaign materials should not be allowed on an exempt entity’s property.
  • Photos with a candidate, receptions honoring candidates, allowing a candidate to speak on an exempt entity’s property or at an event sponsored by an exempt entity are also strictly prohibited.

“Very simply, anything which could be interpreted as supporting or opposing a candidate is strictly not allowed,” Cooper summed up.

“The absolute prohibition against any activity supporting or opposing a particular candidate should not be confused with the freedom to, and perhaps obligation to, speak out on moral issues in a campaign,” Cooper said.

“A few examples are anti-abortion and pro-life positions, the need for affordable housing, school choice, non-discrimination, anti-violence, and a host of other moral positions embedded in the social teachings of the Catholic Church,” he said.

Cooper also directed people to materials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to learn more about Church teaching on the political responsibilities of Catholics.