By Sandhya Bathija
Chicago mayoral candidate James T. Meeks doesn’t understand why his church can’t support his run for office.
As a pastor, he speaks from the pulpit every Sunday, mindful of the federal tax law that prevents him from seeking campaign support from his congregation.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Meeks says he follows the rules but he’s not happy about them.
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“I am running for office, and you know that…. I can take all the money I want from the (National Rifle Association), from the pharmaceutical companies, from the riverboat people, from the tobacco industry and from the liquor industry,” he told worshippers at his Salem Baptist Church. “I can take all the money…. I can take it, it’s legal. But I can’t take one dime from a church. Something is wrong with that picture.”
Meeks seems to think the IRS rule barring pastors from endorsing or opposing candidates is just another way to stifle Christians. He seems to think congregations should be allowed to rally for a candidate who has been “saved” by their belief in Jesus.
“If homosexuals can endorse a candidate, why can’t a church?” Meeks said from the pulpit last Sunday, soon after he voted against a same-sex civil union law recently passed in Illinois.
It is obvious Meeks does not understand the IRS rule, and I’d like to take a moment to explain it to him.
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Any group that receives a 501(c)(3) tax exemption, and that includes houses of worship as well as a wide array of other non-profits, is barred from becoming involved in a campaign. If his church wants to get involved with elections and endorse candidates, it’s free to do that – but it must forgo its tax exemption. A gay rights group that receives a tax exemption has to play by these rules, too.
As for Meeks’ argument that Christians are being targeted or singled out by this rule, well, that’s just nonsense.
In fact, the rule benefits all religious organizations in that it prevents houses of worship from becoming cogs in a political machine. People go to church to receive spiritual guidance – not to talk about candidates. In the past, pastors who have unlawfully become involved with elections have divided their congregations and isolated those that did not subscribe to the same political views.
Meeks should realize that it’s perfectly fine for him to be involved with politics as an individual. It’s also fine for him to encourage members of his congregation to get involved as individuals. It’s quite a different story, however, for him to use church resources to subsidize his campaign or tell parishioners whom they should vote for.
That is a personal and private decision, and most Americans agree. A 2008 poll by LifeWay Research, a firm connected to the Southern Baptist Convention, found that 74 percent of Americans do not believe “it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office.”
So there you have it. It’s a simple rule that all tax-exempt groups must abide by. If Meeks doesn’t want to follow it, he has that option. Be he can’t expect a tax break, too.