Photo: Evan Vucci/AP
By David J. Herzig
One of the leads in today’s news cycle was the Flint Pastor, Rev. Faith Green Timmons of the Bethel United Methodist Church, interrupting Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump during a speech at her church.
According to the story, Rev. Timmons, intervened during Mr. Trump’s speech when he started attacking Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton stating, “Mr. Trump, I invited you here to thank us for what we’ve done in Flint, not give a political speech, …”. To which Mr. Trump responded, “OK. That’s good. Then I’m going back onto Flint, OK? Flint’s pain is a result of so many different failures, …”.
I headed to Twitter to state that Rev. Timmons was doing the right thing protecting her churches charitable exemption by halting the political speech. Quick blackletter law: churches, like other public charities, are exempt from tax under section 501(c)(3). But like all exemptions there are certain limitations, including an absolute prohibition on supporting or opposing candidates for office. In IRS Publication 1828, the IRS position is clear, “churches and religious organizations, are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” (For a primer on the topic, my co-blogger Sam Brunson wrote for Surly here and for a full blown analysis see his work for University of Colorado’s law review here). Churches can’t (although they often do) engage in political speech. Maybe Rev. Timmons was attempting to protect the church’s exemption.
However, as Lloyd Mayer pointed out on Twitter, having a candidate appear at your church two months before the election might in itself be political speech regardless of the topic actually discussed. This would be true unless the church gave the same amount of “air time” to the opponent. Publication 1828 supports Professor Mayer’s view. Statements made by the religious leader of the church at an official church function or through use of the church’s assets would be improper political campaign intervention. Hosting only one candidate regardless of the topic would seem to be an endorsement of that candidate and thus improper political campaign intervention.