The Rev. Scott Hanks has faith in his congregation's politics. The Heritage Baptist Church pastor wants members to be active in the political process. He hopes they caucused earlier this month. He wants them to vote in the presidential election.
He also wants them to keep their faith in mind when they vote.
But he can't tell them that.
The IRS makes sure there's no room for politics on the church pew. Churches are classified as 503(c)(3) organizations, which are tax-exempt. Since 1954, national law has prohibited such organizations from engaging in any political campaign activity.
That means if a pastor like Hanks were to endorse a presidential candidate, Heritage Baptist, 1781 E. 800 Road, could lose its tax-exempt status and end up with a financial mess.
To avoid such a headache, Hanks and other pastors around Lawrence must toe a line between preaching and politicking during election season. That's not to say that Hanks wants his congregation to be uninformed - he posts a candidate guide from an outside source in the church. The guide shows how candidates from both parties break down on several issues, including those that Hanks' congregation feels strongly about.
"I don't have to name a candidate. All I've got to do is name the moral issues involved, and the membership can put two plus two together," he says. "If you just preach the Bible, people are going to figure out, 'Well, this person doesn't line up with what the scripture says, so I shouldn't vote for that person.'"
Politicians and the tax man
Churches and charities both fall under the 503(c)(3) measure that bans politicking as a must for keeping tax-exempt status. But how would the IRS know if politics slipped into Sunday's sermon?
"Generally speaking, and this applies to all exempt organizations, not just churches, if someone sees something they think is not within the law, it can be reported to the Internal Revenue Service. Or if there's a report in the media about activities - however the IRS would become aware of a potential problem," IRS spokesman Michael Divine says. "Then the decision would be made by experts in the exempt organization area about whether they need to send a letter, ask for an explanation or just say, 'No, that's probably OK, we don't have to worry about it.' But it's all based on the individual facts and circumstances."
For the 2006 election cycle, the IRS received 237 referrals nationwide and selected 100 - 44 churches and 56 nonchurches - for examination. Some of those cases are still under investigation, but at least 26 cases of improper political activity were found and issued written advisories. No recommendations to revoke nonprofit status have been reported.
In 2004, the IRS selected 110 cases for examination, issued 69 written advisories, revoked the tax-exempt status of five organizations and proposed the revocation for two others.
Just this week, an attorney for a Los Angeles-area pastor confirmed the pastor is under investigation after he endorsed Mike Huckabee's candidacy for president.
Divine says churches and other tax-exempt organizations have no reason not to know the rules. The guidelines are spelled out clearly on the IRS Web site, along with an eight-page document packed with examples about what is inappropriate and what is acceptable.
What happened to the five organizations that lost their status in 2004?
"Basically, if an organization loses its exempt status, contributions are no longer deductible, and they may have to pay taxes on the income that they had for the period that is affected by the ruling," Divine says.
And the re-application process is long and airs every bit of an organization's financial dirty laundry.
"It's transparent," Divine says of the application process. "One of the advantages of exempt organizations not paying taxes is that the process is open for view. So when there's an exempt organization, whether it be a religious organization or an environmental fund or something like that, it needs to be open so that everyone can see that they do, in fact, deserve the benefits of being an exempt organization."
The Rev. Peter Luckey refers to this situation as a tightrope strung between faith and social action.
"What we say is that we walk a tightrope all the time. And here's the tightrope - on one hand we believe that our faith transcends all political candidacies or political parties. Yet at the same time, the content of our faith believes in the importance of justice and compassion, and calls us to be engaged in a fight and struggle for justice and peace in the world," says the senior pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. "It necessarily means that we, out of our faith, are going to be involved in political issues and the political process.
"So the question is, 'How can we be involved and engaged in politics and yet at the same time keep ourselves removed from it enough that we do not espouse any one particular candidacy?'"
For Hanks, the pastor at Heritage Bible, the answer to that question is simple: stay with the Bible.
"I think the problem is most pastors are afraid to speak out about the moral issues of a candidate because he's afraid of losing his 503(c)(3). But the bottom line is that God made that pastor as the overseer of that flock or membership that he teaches and preaches," Hanks says. "If a preacher would just preach the Bible, a church member would know who to vote for."
Luckey agrees but says that no matter whom his church members chose, they should be prepared for what he calls "the marvelous mess of what we call democracy." He notes a gap between principles and reality but says that shouldn't stop anyone from enlisting faith when picking a candidate.
"At its best, what a life of faith does is help ground people in what are the ultimate principles of importance in their lives," Luckey says. "And those ought to be the principles that are inside (the heart of) who leads our country."