RALEIGH, N.C. (BP) -- Conventional wisdom might hold that churches can never legally get involved in politics, but when it comes to issues -- and specifically for 2012, ballot initiatives dealing with the definition of marriage -- churches actually have wide latitude, says an attorney well-versed in IRS law.
Voters in up to five states this year will vote on the definition of marriage -- North Carolina's vote on May 8 is the first -- and many churches already are involved, urging their members to stand up for the biblical definition of marriage as being between one man, one woman. Still, many churches are hesitant to speak up, fearful that doing so is a violation of IRS law and could endanger their tax-exempt status.
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, says that pastors and congregations have nothing to fear. Under IRS law, churches cannot endorse candidates but they can lobby for specific legislation -- here, ballot initiatives -- provided that the time and money spent doing so is less than 5 percent of their overall operation and budget, Stanley said.
"I cannot foresee any situation where a church would come anywhere close to violating that prohibition," Stanley told Baptist Press of the 5 percent limit. "Essentially, a church would have to devote itself almost wholeheartedly to lobbying efforts in order to be at risk."
Stanley went one step further, saying that churches not only are allowed to take public stands on ballot initiatives, but they should do so. The Alliance Defense Fund (800-TELL-ADF) is a Christian legal group.
"Without the voice of the church, marriage as it stands between one man and one woman is going to be lost in these five states and others," Stanley said. "This is just simply an area where churches don't need to be afraid of the IRS. The IRS allows them to be involved"
After North Carolina votes in May, Maine and Minnesota will follow in November. Maryland and Washington state likely will be added to that November list when signature drives -- expected to be successful -- conclude. The North Carolina and Minnesota amendments seek to define in the state constitutions marriage as between a man and a woman. Maine's vote is being promoted by gay groups and could legalize gay "marriage." In Maryland and Washington, church groups and others are gathering signatures to try to reverse recently enacted laws that legalized gay "marriage." Those laws have yet to take effect.
Pastors and churches, Stanley said, can legally:
-- gather signatures for petitions, even within the church building itself.
-- urge members to support or oppose an initiative.
-- hand out literature for or against an initiative.
-- hold meetings geared specifically toward the initiative.
-- preach sermons on the issue, urging members to vote a certain way.
Thirty-one states have voted on the definition of marriage, and congregations in each state have been involved. But each time a new state considers the issue, Stanley said, confusion about church involvement reigns.
Churches are categorized as 501(c)(3) organizations under IRS code, and as such are restricted in what they can do politically. They are absolutely prohibited from endorsing candidates, Stanley said, but are allowed to do an "insubstantial" amount of lobbying for issues. Although "insubstantial" is not defined, one court defined it as 5 percent, another as 15 percent. To be safe, Stanley said, churches should stay within the 5 percent range.
"People think that a church is prohibited from doing anything that's considered lobbying, and that's just not true," Stanley said. "Churches can do a lot of things to support marriage amendments and other issues. They're not absolutely prohibited from doing that.
"Essentially, they can do anything, and the only restriction is that it remain an insubstantial amount of what the church does overall," Stanley said. "Consider everything that a church does, in terms of meeting time -- just counting all the hours that a church meets every year, and then take 5 to 15 percent of that to devote to legislative and lobbying activities. No church is going to come anywhere close to that."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Learn more about the Alliance Defense Fund at TellADF.org