Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Politics and Policy Advocacy and Religious Communities–questions about church/state separation

A member recently asked about materials displayed at our Social Responsibility Network table after church.  The question:  What about the separation of church and state?

A good and important question.  The constitutional prohibition has to do with restricting government rather than religion.  The government can neither interfere in the free exercise of religion nor establish or support any particular religion.   The restriction on religion in this regard is that it cannot get the government to favor its theology or promote its message.

Churches, and all other not-for-profit organizations, are prohibited from using tax-deductible funds from advocating for candidates for office, political parties, or any partisan political issues.  They may, however, raise awareness about civic issues and governmental policies, including explicit advocacy for or against particular policy actions:  abortion rights (pro or con), gay rights (pro or con), civil liberties (pro or con), capital punishment, funding of military aid to Israel or Colombia, budgetary priorities regarding food or medical care, and the many, many ballot initiatives.

Hence, our Social Responsibility volunteers legally may gather signatures at church for a proposition to end the death penalty, raise taxes, etc.   The church bylaws do make it clear that this must be in the name of the committee and not in the name of the church–unless and until the proper procedures have been followed for taking an official stance.  On some issues, our denomination’s General Assembly delegates have debated and taken specific positions, and often a church will get involved in that issue, such as immigrant justice and marriage equality.

A limit:  The amount of a church or other not-for-profit organization’s budget that may go toward policy advocacy is limited to a small percentage of the total budget.   If spending goes above that limit, then the organization risks losing its nonprofit 501(c)3 status.

I think this limit is now 15%.  Our congregation and our denomination spend well below 5% of resources on policy advocacy.  We spend most of our budget on personnel, who spend their time serving the needs of our members and friends, holding Sunday worship, hosting a community garden, paying utilities, playing music… having fun!

To learn more, check out The Real Rules.


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