UMC 101: The Pulpit and Politics
In the middle of political campaigns, United Methodist churches may be tempted to participate in the process. They must do so carefully, or they may lose their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt privileges.
In 1992, the nondenominational Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., campaigned against presidential candidate Bill Clinton in violation of the Internal Revenue Code. While the congregation argued for freedom of speech, the courts disagreed and the church lost its tax-exempt status.
Churches are prohibited from supporting or opposing any candidate for elected office. This means the church may not make statements orally, in writing or electronically that would favor or oppose a candidate. The church may not rate candidates and may not produce biased voter education material.
Churches may, however, discuss issues unrelated to candidates and may provide information about the United Methodist Social Principles and resolutions as long as they do not directly address positions held by particular candidates. Candidates may speak to a congregation as long as all candidates for the same office are offered the same privilege. Clergy are permitted to run for office as long as they do so outside the context of any religious organization, function or publication.
Churches may also address referendums or constitutional amendments. They may, for example, actively oppose referendums supporting casino gambling.
A bill now before the U.S. House of Representatives would allow faith communities to engage in partisan electioneering during religious services. However, unless that bill becomes law, churches are advised to refrain from such practices.
For more information, see the Web sites of the General Council on Finance and Administration and the General Board of Church and Society.
--The Rev. J. Richard Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference, three-time editor of the Daily Christian Advocate of General Conference and editor of the 2000 Book of Resolutions.