Christian Education

Religion and Politics in Ohio: How Religious Leaders Comply with IRS Rules on Campaigns at Places of Worship

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Many Ohio political candidates are touting pastors, reverends and other religious figures across the state this year.

Securing the support of religious leaders in political campaigns can be very important, not only to bolster the legitimacy of candidate campaigns, but because of the influence these leaders wield among their congregations. This can be seen in calls by Republican candidates for evangelical Christian support for the outsized role black church leaders and participants play in Democratic politics in northeast Ohio and around the state.

At the same time, it may seem odd for religious leaders to endorse candidates, given that churches and other religious organizations may lose their tax-exempt status or be charged additional excise tax if they engage in partisan political activities. Federal law allows churches to engage in nonpartisan political efforts, such as publishing voter guides and organizing urge-to-vote campaigns.

To avoid violating this federal ban, religious leaders who endorse it must walk a fine line. According to the IRS, they must clarify that they are not expressing opinions on behalf of their church, but rather their personal opinions, which are protected by the First Amendment. They also may not make partisan comments during church functions or in official organization publications, or use church assets to aid or oppose a candidate.

Churches, like other 501(c)3 nonprofits (named after the part of the tax code under which they are listed), can take positions on public policy issues — though they run a danger if, in doing so, they mention specific candidates or take a position on their positions or actions. Candidates can also speak at a church as long as certain conditions are met, such as there is no bias or preference towards them, no fundraising is taking place, and other candidates have the same opportunity to speak.

However, the IRS generally does not strictly enforce these boundaries between religion and politics, said Brian Calfano, a professor of political science and journalism at the University of Cincinnati, whose research focuses on religion and politics.

That’s because government officials don’t want to appear to be targeting religious groups, Calfano said. Moreover, he said, the federal government does not want to risk triggering a contentious lawsuit whose outcome is uncertain, and interest groups on both sides of the issue are ready to intervene.

“So the rules are there, but they’re being flouted,” Calfano said.

In 2020, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of a nonprofit co-founded by allies of then-President Donald Trump after the group donated $25,000 to members of the public while praising Trump’s policies at an event for black residents. The group, called the Urban Revitalization Commission, did not advertise itself as a religious organization, although it was co-founded by the Reverend Darrell Scott and listed its business address at Scott’s church in Cleveland Heights.

JC Church, founder and senior pastor of Victory in Truth Ministries at Bucyrus, said he doesn’t think it’s difficult to follow IRS rules and ensure it approves applicants only in a capacity. personally, not on behalf of his church. “I never really worried about it,” he said. “We are following the letter of the law in this regard.”

The church has personally endorsed ex-Republican Jim Renacci for Ohio governor (whom he’s known for years) and ex-treasurer Josh Mandel in the Ohio Senate US GOP primary. Church said such endorsements are “very important.”

“I know there are those who don’t think pastors — those in my profession — should speak out on the issues of the day. But I do,” Church said. “It’s very important that we have the right to do that. I think it’s very important that pastors speak up and stand up for the values ​​that we preach and believe in.”

Church, whose congregation tends to be conservative, said it has seen the number of pastors endorsing candidates increase dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years. “Because of the times we live in, there are many, many more guys out there worrying, speaking out and getting involved — praying, participating,” he said. He particularly noted that more than 100 other pastors besides himself have endorsed Mandel.

Mandel, who is Jewish, has courted the support of evangelical Christian voters heavily, as have most of his top Senate rivals. According to a survey, evangelical Protestants are among the largest religious groups in the state and make up nearly 40% of Republican voters in Ohio.

But Calfano said he was no longer sure religious leaders’ endorsements mattered so much. Religious denominations have become more politically homogenized, so it is likely that the faithful already share the views of their religious leaders.

Such endorsements could carry more weight in political primaries, where voters are asked to choose between specific candidates from the same party, Calfano said. But even then, with the proliferation of social media, he said, “the influence of the local minister or the local congregation, the local church is – it has always been influential, in a strong sense – I want to say that it has practically diminished almost to the point now of not even being noticeable in terms of influence.

Vincent Miller, Gudorf Chair of Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton, said in an email that some denominations — either by tradition or by rule — limit a pastor’s involvement in the church. endorsement of a political candidate.

Contrary to what Calfano said, Miller said these boundaries are sometimes in place because denominations are also divided politically, Miller said.

“Many pastors tread lightly around partisan politics for fear of introducing political divisions into their congregations and making people who vote a different way feel unwanted in a way that undermines their pastoral responsibilities” , wrote Miller.

But that’s also not the case in the Cleveland area, where black churches have long been a focal point of political activity, said Bishop Eugene Ward of the Greater Love Baptist Church in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. of Cleveland.

When certain prominent ministers come out in favor of a candidate, Ward said, the public begins to take notice of that candidate. During Cleveland’s mayoral race last year, Ward said he was “shocked” when a city council member asked which candidate he supported because his constituents wanted to know.

“It means a lot when you say it. “I’m with one candidate in particular,” Ward said.

Black religious leaders in northeast Ohio play an additional role in screening candidates to see if they will act in the best interests of their community, Ward said.

“So many in the African-American community find themselves in dire straits when it comes to education, the economy, our neighborhoods, our incarceration,” Ward said. “We need to reach out to people who are sensitive to the needs of the African American community and who want to do something to improve the plight that is plaguing the whole community.”

However, Ward said, “a few pastors” have “benefited personally” from endorsing specific candidates. “I wouldn’t call it a bribe,” he said. “I just call it a reward.”

Ward did not name specific people, but when asked if these payments were made with statewide candidates or local candidates, he replied that it “depends on where you are in and the current campaign”.

He added that the vast majority of pastors “are more concerned with their community than individual profit.”

Ward himself endorsed former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley for the governorship. Cranley has ostensibly sought to woo black religious leaders as part of his primary campaign against former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. For his part, Whaley also lists several black cabinet ministers on his supporting list, as do Republican gubernatorial candidates such as former U.S. Representative Jim Renacci.

Ward said he approved of Cranley after the two met, and Cranley answered Bishop’s questions. “He works to make sure there’s an equal basis, regardless of color and culture, that everyone is able to make a difference and can make money at the same time,” Ward said. about Cranley.

When Ward was asked if it was appropriate for religious leaders to endorse a political candidate, he replied, “There is supposed to be a separation of church and state, and I believe that comes from a political way of thinking.

“But at the same time, I believe Moses was the first politician, and he introduced the ways of God as well as the law of the land and the law of God.”