Last fall, the Madison Catholic Diocese disappointed some of its members by deciding not to allow people to gather signatures at church events or on church property for a possible recall election against Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Monsignor James Bartylla, the diocese’s second in command, told priests in a memo that gathering signatures against any recall target “is partisan political activity” and therefore an inappropriate undertaking for a church.

A related issue has surfaced this month in Seattle, where the Catholic archdiocese is allowing opponents of same-sex marriage to gather signatures inside churches for a referendum effort that seeks to roll back a recent state law allowing gay marriage.

“Isn’t that illegal activity for a church?” an upset caller asked me last week about the Seattle situation.

With many big elections ahead in Wisconsin this year, I turned to Alliance for Justice in Washington, D.C., for some clarity on church politicking. The organization is a leading expert on what nonprofit organizations, including churches, can and can’t do in the political realm while maintaining their tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.

“The IRS breaks it into two categories: political campaigning, which is strictly prohibited, and influencing the passage of legislation, which is allowed but subject to some limits,” said Melissa Mikesell, an attorney with the organization.

Churches are clearly forbidden from doing anything that supports or opposes a candidate for public office, Mikesell said. They cannot endorse a candidate, spend money on behalf of a candidate, distribute partisan campaign literature or display political campaign signs on church property. They also cannot urge the defeat or election of a candidate from the pulpit, in a newsletter or in a church bulletin, she said.

Legislation is approached differently. Churches are allowed to do a minimal amount of lobbying on proposed legislation and ballot measures, as long as that lobbying is considered only “insubstantial,” an admittedly vague test, Mikesell said. Gathering signatures for a ballot measure such as the one proposed in Washington state likely falls within the permissible zone for churches, she said.

As for recall elections, the IRS has not provided specific guidance, Mikesell said. However, her organization thinks churches probably cannot involve themselves in collecting signatures for such efforts.

“When you’re trying to recall an elected official, there’s often a companion measure that if the person is removed from office, someone else is going to be elected to serve the remainder of the term,” she said. “That goes back to campaigning for or against a candidate.”

Just how often do churches get punished by the IRS for politicking? It’s almost impossible to find out, said Rob Boston, senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., which has filed 113 religion-related complaints with the IRS since 1996.

Federal law requires the IRS to conduct all such investigations in privacy, so there’s no mechanism for following up, Boston said. Some churches have revealed that they’ve been punished, but it often has been just warning letters. “We’d like to see the IRS be more aggressive,” he said.


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