As one rabbi recently wrote on this blog, voting is a mitzvah. “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted,” we read in Talmud (B’rachot 55a). American Jews have a special opportunity and obligation to put these democratic values into practice on Election Day, this year falling on November 6.
Reform Movement institutions and congregations (as well as all religious organizations) are granted a special 501(c)3 tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. With the granting of this status comes restrictions on the types of political activities in which religious entities can engage. As we enter the heights of a very contentious election season, we want to be sure that all Reform congregations and institutions are well informed of the rules governing election year activities. Below is a brief listing of permissible and impermissible political activities for synagogues and clergy.
DOS: Permissible (& Encouraged) Election Activities
Congregations and rabbis, along with other nonprofit organizations, MAY participate in public policy advocacy – lobbying – to a limited degree. This can include supporting or opposing legislation, ballot initiatives, and other governmental actions. However, lobbying activities must be no more than an “insubstantial” part of the total activity of the organization.
Non-partisan civic engagement, such as voter registration and education, is not considered lobbying, and is not limited. Specifically:
- Congregations can take positions on public policy issues, including ballot initiatives and legislation, where their values are implicated. Activities such as public education campaigns, petitioning, joining coalitions and meeting with elected officials are acceptable. Such activities are considered lobbying.
- Congregations may organize non-partisan voter registration and Get Out the Vote drives.
- Congregations may host candidate forums or debates as long as all candidates meeting pre-set, objective, and non-partisan criteria are invited. The forum must be for the purpose of public education, and the issues and format may not favor a particular candidate or party.
- Congregations may encourage voting by organizing non-partisan efforts to assist voters who face transportation challenges in getting to the polls; providing a drop-in babysitting service for parents with young children on Election Day; or establishing a phone chain the night before Election Day encouraging congregants to call 5 other members to remind them to vote.
- Synagogues may serve as Election Day polling locations.
- Congregations may encourage members to volunteer as poll workers on Election Day.
DON’TS: Impermissible Election Activities
As a general rule, synagogues and clergy, acting in an official capacity, MAY NOT engage in activities on behalf of, or in opposition to, any particular party or candidate for office at any level of government. You must remain non-partisan; even the perceived appearance of partisanship can result in your 501(c)3 status being revoked. Specifically:
- Temples and clergy acting in an official capacity may not endorse candidates; for rabbis and cantors, that extends to messages from the pulpit and bulletin articles.
- Congregations may not post signs favoring a party or candidate on their property.
- Religious organizations cannot organize voter registration drives or Get Out the Vote efforts with the express purpose of electing a specific candidate or party.
- Congregations cannot invite a candidate to speak during an election season without providing a comparable opportunity to other candidates. There are limited exceptions to this rule for elected officials currently holding office, but is generally unadvisable.
- Congregations should not use their materials, space, or resources to aid a candidate’s or a party’s campaign.
- Religious organizations cannot raise money for a political candidate or party.
- Religious organizations are not permitted to endorse their own members running for any office either expressly or by implication.
- Religious organizations cannot provide membership lists to candidates, even if the candidate him or herself is a synagogue member.
The line separating Election Year do’s and don’ts can be blurry at times, but its legal implications are vital for all congregations and religious institutions to understand. If you are interested in promoting civic engagement and education at your congregation or in your community, check out our Voting Information Center, available at www.rac.org/vote. There you’ll also find our full Get Out the Vote 2012 Guide, which contains timelines, resources and programming ideas for running a successful registration drive, as well as our new resource on voter ID laws and other voter suppression laws in dozens of states.