Churches, Pastors and Voting

On Tuesday, May 8, North Carolinians were given the opportunity to vote on the following amendment to their state constitution: “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”  Despite concerns—voiced by the ACLU and several North Carolina law professors—about potential negative implications for domestic partner protections, the law passed by a wide margin.

This article is not about my personal feelings regarding the amendment, though. Rather, it is about what I have observed regarding the role of local churches and their pastors in speaking for or against the amendment with regards to how such actions relate to churches’ tax-exempt status under IRS regulations.

As a pastor of a local church in North Carolina, I refuse to hint at, much less proclaim, how I believe church members should vote on issues such as Amendment One from the pulpit.  I have my opinions and I vote, of course, but I do my best not to share my political opinions about particular issues with members of my congregation in order to avoid anything resembling a public endorsement of a candidate or a position on legislation.  To use my position to tell people how to vote is, in my opinion, inappropriate regardless of whether it is technically legal or not.

As such, I have been extremely disappointed in the practices of some local congregations and their pastors in North Carolina surrounding the vote on Amendment One.  For example, a few minutes down the road from the church I pastor, a church sign displayed the following message:  On May 8 Vote “for” Amendment One.  Another local congregation, this one in Winston-Salem, displayed a sign on its front lawn with the opposite message: Vote “against” Amendment One on May 8.

Let me be clear, I am neither asserting that this is a violation that would threaten their tax-exempt status—I am not educated in IRS policy interpretations to make such claims—nor am I advocating for or against the amendment in this article.  I am trying to ask whether or not it is proper for a pastor to tell church members how to vote and/or for a church to display signs or banners on their property about how to vote.

The IRS tax code makes it clear that churches cannot endorse political candidates.  The IRS tax code is less clear regarding churches promoting a position on proposed legislation.   Nevertheless, for me, it seems improper for pastors and/or churches to tell people how to vote because it seems to move beyond “advocacy.”

Pastors and/or churches can and should educate themselves and their people about what the proposed legislation involves and share what they believe their faith tradition says related to the issue at hand, but they should not tell people how to vote.  In other words, statements such as, “we believe the Bible defines marriage as between a man and a woman” or “we believe the Bible seeks justice and equality for all people, regardless of sexual orientation” would be appropriate.  However, I feel that it pushes the boundaries of the IRS requirements for a church to hold tax-exempt status when a pastor instructs members on whether to vote for or against legislation or when a church posts how people should vote on a church sign or banner.

Pastors ought to preach what they believe their sacred texts say about such issues.  Churches ought to proclaim what they believe their sacred texts say about such issues.  Neither churches nor their pastors should be proclaiming “vote for” or “vote against” this or that amendment or legislation, just as they should not (and, legally, cannot) be proclaiming “vote for” or “vote against” this or that candidate.

I do not believe the distance between “vote for” or “vote against this candidate” and “vote for” or “vote against this legislation” is as a great a divide as some suggest.  It would be wise for pastors to guide their churches toward a focus on educating people about the issues and what one’s faith tradition has to say about such matters, while also guiding their churches away from a focus on instructing people about how to vote.  In short, advocacy, in the context of the local church, should avoid a formal statement (by a pastor or a church as a whole) of “vote for” or “vote against” proposed legislation.

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