Virginia AG Clarifies Legal Limits, Responsibilities of Pastors in Politics

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli spoke to the approximately 250 church leaders on Thursday, outlining for them what they are allowed to do when it comes to political engagement.

A personal endorsement of a candidate is permissible under the law, he said at the Virginia Christian Alliance’s “Christian Citizenship and Godly Government Breakfast.” But they cannot use their church to endorse anyone.

“The biggest no-no of them all, do not put your church's name behind any candidate,” he made clear as he pointed out that churches that endorse candidates could lose their 501(c)3 tax exempt status.

Pastors may endorse candidates as long as it is a personal endorsement and not the position of their church. Churches may also distribute voter guides explaining the issue positions of candidates, as long as those guides do not also contain the positions of the church on those issues.

Cuccinelli assured the pastors, though, that speaking out on political issues is not only legal, but appropriate.

“When you became a pastor, you didn’t leave your First Amendment rights at the door,” he clarified. “Continue to be good shepherds to your congregations – and don’t be afraid when your shepherding includes giving guidance on issues that fall in the political world, because those are the same issues your congregants face each day in their world. Let your voice be heard. Speak out and guide your flock toward what is right and what is true.”

The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group, has also been concerned that pastors have been unduly avoiding political topics out of legal concerns. In fact, the ADF has gone further by openly challenging a 1954 provision in the tax code that says non-profit groups (including churches) may not “participate in, or intervene in” political campaigns.

The ADF believes that by specifying what pastors cannot say, this provision is a violation of the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause. For the past three years, ADF has helped organize Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in which pastors defy the law by discussing the relationship between their church’s teachings and the issue positions of specific candidates. About 100 pastors participated in last September's Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, said that while he often disagrees with Cuccinelli, Cuccinelli's remarks at the VCA breakfast were “right out of the ACLU policy manual.” Summarizing the ACLU's position, Willis wrote, "Churches can engage in a wide variety of advocacy, educational and charitable services, so long as they limit their lobbying to a small fraction of their expenditures and they don't do anything that can be interpreted as endorsing candidates running for office.”

The Virginia Christian Alliance event was geared toward the large number of black church leaders in attendance. While blacks generally vote Democratic in high numbers, they tend to be more conservative on abortion and gay marriage. Cuccinelli raised the issue of abortion by noting that most of the abortion clinics in Virginia are in black neighborhoods.

"Pull out a map of Virginia and look where the abortion clinics are. That doesn't make you mad? You're a calmer person than I am. It makes me mad." Bishop Harry Jackson, a prominent black minister and Christian conservative leader, was also a speaker at the event.

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