The Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va, recently informed the press that some pastors in the Washington region have advised their members to refrain from voting in the upcoming presidential election because of President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage. In fact, articles about similar stances by African-American pastors are abundant on the Internet. To Wesley, however, the notion is deplorable.
The Rev. Al Sharpton took it a step further, saying that after our ancestors fought so hard for the right to vote, how could we possibly give that right back? And, African-American journalist Harrison Chastang said the pastors have obviously forgotten about or are ignoring events like the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that took the lives of four little black girls during the struggle to end legal discrimination and to secure voting rights for African Americans.
As a lawyer, the bigger question for me is whether these pastors are putting their church's tax exempt status in jeopardy. That's because organizations that are tax exempt, like churches, are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in any political campaign. Violation can result in revocation of the church's tax-exempt status and draw into question the deductibility of individual contributions to the church.
IRS regulations make it clear that churches, like other 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations, can indeed speak out about political issues like gambling, gay marriage, abortion, and even war, that are seen as moral issues. Even voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives are also not prohibited as long as the church’s activities don’t include endorsing or opposing a candidate.
It could be argued that singling out President Obama's position on gay marriage does indeed amount to opposing a candidate. According to Chastang, the Rev. William Owens, with the Coalition of African American Pastors, has asked Black Christians to withhold support from President Obama until he reverses his position on same sex marriage.
Although the IRS sought to enforce this prohibition against the NAACP and then-Chairman Julian Bond, along with approximately 20 churches, after the 2004 presidential election, some would note that the IRS has rarely pursued this issue.
That doesn't mean, however, that the IRS will always look the other way. In Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, a church in Binghamton, N.Y., took out full-page ads in two newspapers asking readers not to vote for a particular candidate and requesting "tax-deductible donations" to cover the cost of the ad. The courts there upheld the IRS's position that the church had violated the ban on "intervention in a political campaign," and rejected the church's constitutional challenge.
Our African American pastors should tread carefully.
Shirley A. Jones, Esq. is president of the Region XI Council of Blacks In Government.