Overland Park — Top law enforcement officials, convening an unprecedented Kansas summit on the sometimes-volatile mix of church and state, said Wednesday it was OK to preach politics from a tax-exempt pulpit but urged moderation.
"It's vitally important that the law be understood," said Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, who led a panel discussion that included U.S. Atty. Eric Melgren and Tom Miller, an IRS expert on charitable organizations.
The discussion was the latest development in a monthslong dispute that began with the Kansas Legislature rejecting a proposed amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriages. That issue was reignited Wednesday as the U.S. Senate rejected a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Angered by the failure to gain a constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage, some preachers in Kansas have vowed to energize their congregations to register new voters and vote out candidates who stood in the way of the amendment.
Then the Mainstream Coalition, a group that advocates for separation of church and state, said it would monitor certain churches to make sure religious groups stayed within the bounds of what their tax-exempt status allowed.
Drawing a clear line
Kline, a conservative Republican, said he feared questions about the do's and don'ts of tax-exempt organizations in politics would have a "chilling effect" that could muzzle the churches.
Citing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s pulpit exhortations for civil rights in the 1960s, Kline said churches could freely and publicly discuss the important political issues of the day, and remain tax-exempt.
"I think it is important for people to participate in the political debate," he said before a crowd of about 100 people, most of them pastors and some political activists, at Johnson County Community College. "We want to eliminate the cloud of confusion."
Melgren said he didn't think any ministers in Kansas were violating IRS rules, but he wanted "to get in front of the issue before problems came up."
Kline, Melgren and Miller said there were restrictions: generally that tax-exempt organizations cannot use charitable donations to endorse specific candidates or political parties.
After an hour-and-a-half discussion, Melgren summed up the law, saying that preachers could preach politics, especially issues that touch upon the principles of certain religions, such as abortion, same-sex marriage and war, but they shouldn't endorse specific candidates from the pulpit. And if one candidate speaks during worship services, all hopefuls should get a similar chance.
Freedom to preach
The panel discussion was informative, said Scott Hanks, pastor of the 300-member Heritage Baptist Church in Lawrence.
"I think there was a fear on the part of some of what pastors can and cannot do," said Hanks, who has preached against same-sex marriage.
He said he had not violated any of the restrictions discussed by the panel. "I tell my church they should not be voting for a candidate based on money, but on morality. I don't care if the person is Republican or Democrat," Hanks said.
Caroline McKnight, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, also said the panel discussion was educational.
"Clergy have absolute freedom when talking about an issue," she said. "But the rules become more restrictive when the clergy wants to connect with a party or a candidate."
Miller, the IRS expert from Washington, said the tax-exempt rules also applied to church-produced voter guides, which are common in Kansas and usually provide questions and answers about candidates on a handful of issues.
Miller said the voter guides were likely to be viewed as partisan if the questions were "loaded" and candidates were not given much room to explain their answers.
But he later conceded the IRS takes few enforcement actions against churches, repealing the tax-exempt status of "fewer than one a year" in the past few years.