Should Pastors, Religious Leaders Endorse Political Candidates and Is It Legal?

One of the more common strategies any candidate or campaign seeks to employ is to use the endorsement of high profile individuals who are willing to lend their name and personal support to a candidate with the intention of influencing others to do the same. But the issue gets a bit sticky when those endorsing are connected to a church or a major religious organization.

But perhaps before answering whether they should, the first question to ask is can they legally endorse political candidates?

Under the 501 (c) (3) section of the Internal Revenue Service Code, it states that churches may engage in some "legislative activity" and still qualify for favored tax status, as long as such activity is not more than an "insubstantial" part of its overall activity in terms of time and money (e.g., worship service, Sunday school programs, etc.).

In other words, the amount of permissible legislative activity is somewhat vague. Legislative activity that amounts to 5 percent of all church activity is generally considered "safe." Legislative activity between 5 and 20 percent is less certain and, therefore, less safe. Activity over 20 percent has been found unacceptable by the Internal Revenue Service, although the rule has rarely been enforced.

Under IRS guidelines, legislative activity is defined as any conduct intended to influence legislation, initiatives or referendums. However, the code places no limitations on the legislative activity of church members – including pastors who act as individuals, not as representatives of the church.

David French, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by Jay Sekulow, says pastors have every right to personally endorse candidates.

"Pastors absolutely have the right to endorse candidates, French said in an email response to The Christian Post. "If they do so in their individual capacity, they have no fear of IRS sanction. If, however, they do it 'officially,' as part of their role and duties as pastor, they may endanger their church's tax exemption."

French also outlined his thoughts not only on the legality of pastors endorsing, but the biblical responsibility pastors have to instruct their congregation on issues impacted by the government or political process.

"While the decision to endorse depends on the merits of the competing candidates in any given race, there is a need for pastors to bring their biblical knowledge and training to thorny cultural and social issues," explained French. "I think pastors should feel free to instruct their congregations regarding a biblical world view and its implications on all aspects of life – including politics."

LifeWay Research released the results of a poll earlier this month that showed 90 percent of the 1,000 pastors questioned felt they should not endorse political candidates from the pulpit. However, 44 percent of pastors revealed they had endorsed candidates in a personal role and outside of their church activities.

Still, that hasn't kept pastors and religious leaders from exercising their legal and civic rights in the days leading up to the presidential election.

Jim Garlow, who leads Skyline Church in San Diego, announced from the pulpit that he is voting for Mitt Romney, but stopped short of a blanket endorsement.

"My endorsement will be Jesus," Garlow said. "I'll tell you whom I'm going to vote for, but I don't think that makes it an endorsement. I'm going to vote for Mitt Romney, but I'm not telling you to."

Garlow's announcement came during a campaign known as "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," which was promoted by the Alliance Defending Freedom and held on Oct. 8 of this year. The intent of the campaign was to make pastors and churches aware of the legal rights in addressing political and governmental issues.

"The purpose is to make sure that the pastor – and not the IRS – decides what is said from the pulpit," Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the group, told "It is a head-on constitutional challenge."

A more recent endorsement by a major religious leader came last Friday when Dr. Richard Land, who leads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in his professional career.

Land, who is also executive editor of The Christian Post, made the endorsement as a private citizen, independent of both organizations.

While Land believes the endorsement should not come from the pulpit, he also supports a pastor's right to support a specific candidate.

"No, I don't think pastors should be endorsing candidates from the pulpit," Land told Baptist Press. "Normally, I would agree with those who think we shouldn't [endorse candidates] even as private citizens."

Land's endorsement, announced on the CP website, asserted that the stakes in this year's presidential election "could not be higher morally, socially, or economically." And referencing the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties in his op-ed, Land noted the Democrats' embrace of abortion and same-sex marriage versus the Republicans' pro-life and pro-family stances.

"For Christians of traditional religious faith," Land wrote, "there cannot be more fundamental issues than the protection of the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death and the defense of marriage as a divinely-ordained institution between one man and one woman."

Land told BP "once in a while, an election is important enough that one has to make an exception to the rule [of not endorsing a candidate]. And for me, this is such a time."

Interestingly, many black preachers in the south have for years endorsed from the pulpit and even invited candidates to address their congregations during Sunday services. Former Congressman Harold Ford, Sr., and his son, Harold Ford, Jr., spent many fall Sundays making the rounds to black churches in Memphis, Tenn., handing out Democratic ballots and campaigning from the pulpit, said one retired COGIC minster who asked not to be identified.

"Every election year somebody from Harold's office would call and tell us what day and time he was going to be here," the minster recalled. "We had no choice but to honor his request and give him as much time as he wanted. Of course, all the folks in the pews were Democrats anyway. We never had one single complaint and never heard from an IRS man either."

"Previous research has shown that pastors believe the government has no place in determining what is and is not said from their pulpits regarding candidates," Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research, said. "Yet most pastors don't believe endorsement of candidates should be made from the pulpit."

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