Churches and Political Action
by Mark Penninga (First printed in Reformed Perspective magazine, December 2009): Confusion abounds and blood pressure rises as church councils and members discuss what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to political activity in a church. Can a member of a church distribute literature from a political party in the church mailboxes? Can an all-candidates forum be hosted in a church? Unfortunately there are many misconceptions about the law on this matter. And even when we understand the law, some even tougher decisions remain.
Most Reformed churches, like many other churches, are registered as charities with Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Church members benefit from this by receiving tax-receipts which can result in substantial savings when their annual income taxes are due.
But charitable status has strings attached. There are many regulations that charities have to follow, also when it comes to engaging in political activity. This article won’t go into great detail about these restrictions (go to the CRA website www.cra.gc.ca for that) but it will provide the basics which should answer most of the questions that churches face on this matter.
What charities can’t do
Charities are allowed to be involved in political activities, but these political activities have restrictions. The number one restriction that applies to churches is that a charity may not be partisan (supporting or opposing any political party or candidate). A second significant restriction is that even if political activity isn’t partisan, it must be limited to no more than 10-20 per cent of the charity’s resources (depending on the size of the charity).
This second restriction isn’t even an issue for any Reformed church that I have seen. The vast majority of the resources go towards the preaching of the Word, support for the needy, missions, the church building, and support for other charitable efforts.
It is the first major restriction that causes confusion in churches. Charities may not engage in partisan political activity, which means that they may not promote or oppose any party or candidate. A charity can talk about political issues, it can encourage people to get politically active on these issues, it can promote or oppose a piece of legislation before our Parliament, legislatures, or town council, it can compare the policies of all the parties and candidates at election time, it can hold an all-candidates forum and it can discuss political matters through its publications or sermons. But it cannot take that one step further by promoting or opposing a particular political party or candidate.
What would be considered supporting or opposing a party or candidate? If a church allows only one party or candidate to address its members, distribute their literature, or use the church mailboxes then CRA may interpret that to mean that the charity is using its resources to be partisan in its political activity. Some might respond that it is not the church that is putting the literature from a party into the mailboxes. Rather, it is just a member of the church who is doing it on their own accord. That may be fine if the church would also allow members to distribute literature from the local marijuana party (i.e. if it has absolutely no say about what is put into the mailboxes). But if it restricts what goes in the mailboxes in any way then it is quite clear that the mailboxes are under the jurisdiction of the church, not the members. Allowing only one party to be promoted is implicitly partisan political action.
Why does our government even care about what charities do? Our country gives substantial tax savings to people who contribute to a political party or candidate (up to 75% back) and to people who contribute to a charity. Charities receive this incentive because they are carrying out activities that are for the good of the country. According to CRA “The main reason why the courts rule out political purposes for charities is a result of the requirement that a purpose is only charitable if it generates a public benefit. A political purpose, such as seeking a ban on deer hunting, requires a charity to enter into a debate about whether such a ban is good, rather than providing or working towards an accepted public benefit. It also means that in order to assess the public benefit of a political purpose, a court would have to take sides in a political debate.”
This reasoning from CRA is weak. On the one hand CRA allows charities to devote some of its activities for political purposes. But on the other hand it doesn’t allow these activities to be partisan. CRA is simply drawing a line. There are good reasons for that line to be drawn elsewhere. But that really isn’t the issue here. The point is that line exists and churches have to respect the law. Problems arise when charities, political parties, or candidates take government money and incentives for granted and think that there should be no limitation on what they can and can’t do. It wouldn’t seem reasonable to restrict which parties or candidates were receiving support if a church wasn’t making use of substantial savings from the government to its members. But given that it does make use of these savings by being a charity, it has to abide by the rules that CRA provides.
If a church would like the freedom to promote or oppose a party or candidate then the answer is quite simple. It should give up its charitable status. Then they can be free to openly endorse a party or use their resources however they like. But as long as they want to keep the charitable status then they are required by law to obey the restrictions that come with it. A church should be setting an example to the membership and the community by upholding the law.
A bigger issue – maintaining charitable status
In fact, churches should be cautious about relying on their charitable status too much. It can become a noose around their neck as CRA increasingly tightens the requirements of what charities may and may not do. A church has to be accountable ultimately to God, not CRA. Increasingly, hostile organizations and individuals are pressuring CRA to make life difficult for charities that promote traditional values and biblical norms. Wherever there is tax money of any kind, there is government influence.
Churches should be very careful to not rely too much on their ability to give tax receipts. There may come a time when they can no longer in good conscience go along with the requirements of CRA for charities.
Thankfully, others are beginning to wake up to the dangers of the power that CRA wields in this regard. According to the Financial Post, a recent study by the C.D. Howe Institute has found that CRA has created “a regulatory environment that is rigid and selective, stymies the development of new charities and injects tax bureaucrats into the arena of social policymaking.” Provinces have the constitutional authority to take charge of monitoring charities and they need to make use of that authority, according to this report.
The dangers of political partisanship for churches
In my personal view, even if a church were to give up its charitable status it may not be wise to engage in partisan political action. In our fallen and sin-filled world it is very easy to make mistakes in partisan politics. Individuals have to search their hearts and consciences when they decide who to vote for. It would be very difficult for a church to justify a decision to bind the consciences of its members by encouraging them to vote for a particular party or candidate. For example, if a quality party with a quality candidate was running in an election and the church implicitly or explicitly supported this party or candidate, what would happen when four years down the road that same party nominated a very poor candidate? Suddenly things aren’t so clear and poor decisions are easily made.
This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be times when churches speak for or against decisions that our leaders are making. Churches should encourage the membership to obey their civic and Christian duty to be involved in public life but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is only one way to do this. This is one reason why a local ARPA group can be such an asset in a town or city. They can organize all-candidate forums or inform the church members about where the candidates stand on issues that they care about. Churches can make use of this material without any worry since it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) partisan. Individual members can then apply their faith as they make a choice about which party or candidate to support.
Political parties can continue to urge members of a church to support them. But they have to do that without making use of the resources of the church (such as the bulletin, mailboxes, or pulpit). This makes things more difficult for a party or candidate. But there are consequences to being able to give substantial tax savings to donors.
ARPA Canada and local ARPA’s are not charities and consequently cannot give tax receipts to donors. That makes it more difficult to stay afloat from a financial perspective. But it does give us the freedom we want to be able to engage in political action as we choose. ARPA Canada has decided to remain non-partisan but we do this not because we have to by law. Rather we are non-partisan out of respect for the local churches that we work alongside. We don’t want to compromise their charitable status in any way by urging members of the churches to apply their faith to the political issues of the day.
The importance of political action in churches
Reformed churches seem to get overly caught up in this issue, as if political activity only involves which party to vote for. The reality is that political participation goes on between elections as well. It is especially then that we need to be encouraging people to apply our faith to public life. Churches don’t have to worry about jeopardizing their charitable status by encouraging action in response to the evils of abortion, euthanasia, human trafficking, pornography, or by praying for their political representatives. It is something they can and must do.
Don’t let the controversy over partisan political action stop your church from being involved in non-partisan political action. There are so many issues that we need to address. Fear, intimidation, or retreat from all political issues are not the way to respond. As prophets, priests, and kings of Christ Jesus we have a calling to stand up for truth, justice, and righteousness in the public square.