President George W. Bush holds up a Bible while speaking on faith-based initiatives Jan. 15 at Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Orleans. RNS/Ted Jackson photo.
Many issues crucial to people of faith are at stake in the upcoming U.S. election—war and peace, public education, the economy and the environment. Unfortunately, many church members think that their church's tax-exempt status as a "501(c)(3) organization" prohibits them from letting their members know the church's positions on these issues.
This is not true!
While the Internal Revenue Service does regulate the activities of charitable organizations that are not required to pay federal income tax on their mission-related incomes, they do not restrict churches from discussing or providing educational materials that do not support or oppose a candidate for public office.
Registering voters, providing voter information, educating the congregation on issues of morality and public policy, and sponsoring candidates' forums are all legitimate activities for religious groups.
Election year workshop
As part of the annual Earl Lectures and Pastoral Conference of UCC-related Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., about 50 persons gathered on Jan. 28 for a workshop called "Preaching, teaching, and organizing in an election year."
Northern California-Nevada Conference Minister the Rev. Mary Susan Gast co-led the workshop with the Rev. Ron Stief, who heads the Washington, D.C., offi ce of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.
Gast related how last year she invited a number of UCC members who are used to putting their faith into action around social issues to gather with her and engage in theological and biblical reflection about election-year issues and strategy.
"What would it mean to have a public voice in our community this year around issues that we care about?" she asked. "If 'God is still speaking,' then God doesn't shut up in the face of potentially controversial issues."
Stief pointed to three ways in which local churches can get involved:
Conducting non-partisan voter registration;
Using the UCC's Take Action website ucctakeaction.org;
Applying for mini-grants, up to $500, available to local churches for election-year programs (up to 50 percent of this money will fund programs dealing with women's issues).
Stief emphasized that the voter registration programs will target infrequent voters and low-income voters. Typically, he said, those Americans least likely to vote are racial/ethnic persons; young, poor, elderly, or disabled; non-English speakers; and citizens without a college degree.
One out of six UCC churches is related to some sort of government program, he said, including food pantries, soup kitchens or health programs, pointing out that these are likely places to register voters.
"We're not just trying to get people to vote for a president," he said, "but trying to get communities involved as citizens in shaping our economic future."
Local church examples
The workshop concluded with participants offering examples from their local churches, including the following:
The Rev. Kyle Lovett of St. John's UCC, San Francisco, forwards issue-related e-mail to interested parishioners and colleagues and posts it on a church bulletin board;
Delane Welsch said that New Brighton (Minn.) UCC is working against the idea of "no new taxes," but is instead educating members about the difference between "big government waging war and big government providing services for the most vulnerable";
Southern California-Nevada Conference Minister the Rev. Dan Romero reported that local church interest in becoming "Peace with Justice" churches is on the rise since the war in Iraq;
The Rev. Carol Barriger of First Congregational UCC, Redwood City, Calif., and the Rev. Robert Parsonage, a member of Cable (Wis.) UCC, reported increased relationships with the League of Women Voters. The California church made its space available to the League for its events and the Wisconsin city boasting more men in its League chapter than any other in the state;
The Rev. Melinda McLain of Niles Congregational UCC, Fremont, Calif., uses the "God is still speaking," UCC identity theme as "a phenomenal entry point" to "open up all these issues;" and
The Rev. Linda Crowe of Spokane Valley UCC, Wash., told how churches, unions and the educational community have come together in the Spokane Alliance "to work for the common good."
Crowe cited two examples of organizational success: 1) the head of Bonneville Power committed to hire locally, and 2) the city council agreed to provide minimal health care to persons without health care.
"Getting involved in local issues gets people from all walks of life working together," Crowe said. "It's really empowering to be able to do something and see concrete results."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.
Churches can engage in political—not electoral—activities
Do educate your congregation about issues of morality, justice and public policy.
Do cover the issues relevant to the campaign, including candidates' positions.
Do focus on public policies and issue education, not electioneering.
Do encourage voter registration and participation.
Do speak as individuals, not as a congregation.
Do not support or oppose any specific candidate for political office.
Do not distribute materials prepared by political parties or candidates.
Do not contribute church assets to candidates' campaigns.
Do not endorse specific candidates in sermons or worship services.
Do not be afraid: Advocating policy is a legal, acceptable activity for churches.
Source: "Gentle reminders for political activity" from the resource, "Faith, Politics and Elections," produced by the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.
To learn about the mini-grants, call Juanita Helphrey of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries at 216-736-3721.
To download the resource "Faith, Politics and Elections," go to ucc.org/justice/election2004.
To sign up for weekly action alerts, go to ucctakeaction.org.