Q. Why can’t we put political signs on church property for pro-life candidates? (Appleton)
A. To answer the question simply, the church does not put up signs in support of any candidates because doing so would jeopardize its status as a tax-exempt organization. Churches, as non-profit organizations, are not required to pay taxes including sales tax, income tax and property taxes. The government allows for this exemption, at least in part, because it recognizes the good work churches do in the community.
However, as a tax-exempt organization, churches (and all other tax exempt organizations) are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activities. Putting up a sign for a particular political candidate, even one who hypothetically is fully in line with Catholic teaching, would be considered engaging in partisan political activities. Therefore, it would be a violation of the rules regarding a church’s tax-exempt status.
It should be noted that while churches are restricted from supporting or opposing specific candidates, they are allowed to educate and advocate regarding political issues. So posting a sign in support of life is allowed, because it is not endorsing or opposing any specific candidate for office.
Some people might question whether tax exemption is worth it, if it means that the church cannot engage in partisan politics. While that is open to debate, it should be noted that, because of their tax-exempt status, churches are able to dedicate their resources more directly to ministering to people and serving the community. Without the tax exemption, significant resources would be required to pay taxes, taking those resources away from the money available to fulfill the church’s mission.
Even if there were no issues with tax exemptions, there are theological reasons why the church does not endorse or oppose specific candidates. These are explained in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a document on political responsibility from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Building on the foundation of Scripture and tradition, the bishops; document distinguishes between the role of the church as an institution (including clergy and lay leadership) and the roles of individual lay people when it comes to the political process. The role of church leadership is to “teach fundamental moral principles that help Catholics form their consciences correctly, to provide guidance on the moral dimensions of public decisions, and to encourage the faithful to carry out their responsibilities in political life” (n. 15).
The bishops go on to quote Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est regarding the role of the laity: “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful” (n. 29). So while church leadership offers the guidelines and principles to consider when making our political choices, it is up to the lay faithful to apply those principles in making a decision about the specific candidates that are running for office.
Weiss is program manager for the diocesan Office of Living Justice.
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