Nonprofits Blast Church Group’s Call to Loosen Political Speech Rules

Independent Sector says proposal ‘contaminates our advocacy work’

Many observers would agree that current regulations on political speech by charities and religious groups are vague and need to be clarified. Disagreement surrounds every other aspect of the issue.

Last week, Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofit groups, sharply criticized a new report by the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations that recommended major changes in those regulations.

CAPRO was set up by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability in response to a request from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to coordinate a national effort on political expression and tax policy regarding nonprofits, and in particular religious organizations, according to The NonProfit Times.

The commission’s report recommended that clergy should be able to say whatever they believed was appropriate in the context of their religious services or other regular religious activities even if their comments related to political candidates, according to NPT.

In the commission’s analysis, such communication would be permissible as long as the organization’s cost would be the same with or without it.

“We think it should not be a possibility,” Independent Sector’s president and chief executive Diana Aviv countered.

Although she agreed with the commission that the area lacked clarity, “the solution is not to gut everything,” she told NPT. “This actually contaminates our advocacy work.”

Aviv saw the commission’s report as an attempt to “drive a truck” through the clear separation of political activity and nonpartisan political activity from other activity.

According to the article, Aviv acknowledged that a strong argument existed for reviewing the limits put in place in 1969 and 1976. At present, charities can interact with public officials on a limited basis, which she said was an appropriate distinction.

“Speaking out and engaging in advocacy on issues is critical to the ability of nonprofits to achieve their missions,” she said. “This is an entirely different matter than endorsing candidates or getting involved in political campaigns.”

NPT reported that Independent Sector had aligned itself with the Bright Lines Project, which was started in 2009 by the Center for Effective Government out of frustration with IRS rules about nonpartisan political activity. It is developing recommendations that will make clear what activities should be allowed.

Aviv said greater clarity was needed about what constituted political activity and how much was allowed, and that the names of donors to 501(c)(4)s shoud be disclosed when their gifts are used for partisan purposes.

"What we need are clearer boundaries," she said in a statement, "not for the existing ones to be torn down."

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