From the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane
Bishop of Maine
As our country turns toward the election of a President this fall and attention focuses on the upcoming nominating conventions, I’d like to remind us of the rules guiding church participation in politics. These are set out in the IRS rules governing non-profit religious institutions and churches. www.irs.gov/uac/charities-churches-and-politics
Social Media and Elections
Our churches and in our roles as church leaders, we are not permitted, in church publications or from the pulpit, to advocate for or against a particular candidate for public office. With the advent of social media, the category of “church publication” is a bit vague but may well include blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. If a personal account commingles personal opinion about a candidate and also shares church information, the page might be construed as a church publication. This is new territory for us and has the potential to introduce confusion as to whether the individual clergy person or the church is advocating for or against a particular candidate.
Advocacy on Legislation and Ballot Initiatives
Our churches and in our roles as church leaders, we are permitted to educate and advocate regarding public issues and legislation as well as teach about how faith, beliefs, and church doctrine intersect with public issues and legislation. (Please see the House of Bishops’ statement issued March 2016)
Our churches may hold educational forums, and we as clergy may participate in issue-based political action groups. We may testify before the legislature and speak at public events. We may not spend a “substantial” percentage of the church budget on advocacy efforts. (While the IRS does not define what a “substantial” amount is, the American Bar Association defines it as more than 20 percent of an organization’s operating income.) While it is highly unlikely that a church would expend such an amount, to do so would open the church to questions about its primary purpose.
We may hold candidates forums or debates about public issues. Such events, when opposing views are expressed, are meant to educate the public and should be presented in an unbiased manner, regardless of any point of view we may hold.
Holding Up Civil Discourse as the Standard
Beyond our obligation to adhere to the IRS rules, we have committed ourselves to civil discourse as a way to honor our Baptismal covenant. The Diocese of Maine is a signatory to the Maine Council of Churches Covenant for Civil Discourse. Civil discourse encourages vigorous debate about ideas and policies. Contrariwise, attacks on the character, intelligence, appearance, background, etc., of any candidate or spokesperson are a violation of our belief that every person is a child of God for whom Christ died.
The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations has just released a very comprehensive and helpful toolkit and resource, Policy for Action 2016, to assist individual Episcopalians and churches engage in public life.
Also the Maine Episcopal Network for Justice has many resources on several of the ballot initiatives that Maine citizens will consider this year. Learn more on its webpage or Facebook page and consider asking MENJ Director John Hennessy to visit your church to learn more about its work.