September 29, 2022

No, political candidates do not violate the First Amendment

Churches and other nonprofits that support specific candidates, however, risk losing their tax-exempt status.

MUSKEGON, Mich. — With election season in full swing, several Michigan gubernatorial candidates have planned rallies or appearances at area churches.

Those like Republican Ryan Kelley were scheduled to appear in the Detroit metro area this weekend.

The event prompted a viewer to ask if these candidates were possibly violating the separation of church and state.

The 13 ON YOUR SIDE Verify team has found the answer.

“Are political candidates who hold rallies or appearances inside churches violating the separation of church and state?

“Are churches compromising their tax-exempt status by allowing such appearances?

In answer to the first question, we were able to verify that no, political candidates who organize rallies or other appearances inside religious establishments do not violate the Establishment Clause.

The second question received a yes: Churches and other nonprofits that support specific candidates risk their tax-exempt status, though experts said there were a number of notable gray areas. They also suggested that the IRS rarely investigates such violations.

“There is no violation of the First Amendment,” Lund said by phone Friday.

Thomas Jefferson was among the first to coin the phrase “separation of church and state” in a letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.

The actual legal basis for the principle derives from the first clause of the Bill of Rights – known as the Establishment Clause – which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion.”

Cornell University says the clause also “prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another.”

“It’s a basic rule of the Establishment Clause that the government cannot… take a position on religious matters,” Lund said.

As for the second question, churches and many other nonprofit organizations are eligible for 501(C(3) status, a special designation given by the IRS that exempts these organizations from paying federal taxes.

“Yes, churches and nonprofits can take a stand on public policy issues, they can be pro-life or pro-choice, they can support gay rights or oppose gay rights, but they are not supposed to take a position on whether Candidate A or Candidate B should be elected to public office,” Lund explained. “In practice, the IRS has the ability to strip the organization of its tax-exempt status.”

Make it easier to update with more stories like this. Download the 13 ON YOUR SIDE app now.

Do you have a topical tip? Email [email protected], visit our Facebook page Where Twitter. Subscribe to our Youtube channel.