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Readings for Reflection: April 2012
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

Friends and Politics
by Jennifer Chapin-Smith

Jen Chapin-Smith, a sojourning member of our Meeting, worked for FCNL from 2002 to 2005. As the daughter of a U.S. civil servant, Jen grew up in the Washington, DC area and learned a lot about government regulations.

Friends have a long and important history of changing governmental laws and policies for the better, and we should continue to do so. However, we must remember that our work for peace, equality, and human rights transcends individual elections, and that our spiritual community, the primary reason for which we gather each week, informs our witness in the world.

Ann Arbor Friends Meeting is a 501(c)(3) religious nonprofit organization. This means that the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does not tax the money in the Meeting’s bank account. The IRS also allows people to deduct their donations to the Meeting from their personal income taxes. However, the IRS places certain restrictions on nonprofits in exchange for this tax-exempt status.

Nonprofits cannot engage in electoral politics or “electioneering.” Nonprofits cannot endorse or oppose specific candidates or parties. Nonprofits can talk about issues, but not urge their members to vote for the candidate or party who supports their views.

The IRS has in the past investigated churches whose pastors have preached for or against candidates. As unprogrammed Friends we have no specifically-designated clergy (or, we are all the clergy), so any time any one of us gives a message supporting or opposing a candidate or party during meeting for worship, announcements, or at any other time on Meeting property, we risk an IRS investigation. Any event that takes place on Meeting property is subject to the IRS rules governing nonprofits, even if the Meeting is not endorsing or sponsoring the event. This means that we as members or attenders of Meeting are all subject to IRS regulations on 501(c)(3) religious nonprofit organizations while we are at Meeting and so are all individually responsible for ensuring that the Meeting does not lose its 501(c)(3) designation. The rules do not apply to Friends when we are not at Meeting, unless we present ourselves as representing the Meeting, but do apply to Meeting-sponsored events that take place elsewhere.

Nonprofit organizations can spend up to 10% of their time and money lobbying elected officials. This is part of why Quakers formed the Friends Committee on National Legislation, an organization specifically created to lobby the government and which runs in compliance with IRS laws regarding lobbying organizations. FCNL (a 501(c)(4) not-for-profit organization, subject to different IRS regulations) can do most of our lobbying for us, and as an organization can spend all of its time and money lobbying the government. Federal law defines lobbying as asking one’s elected official to take a specific action, such as vote for a particular bill or fund a particular project. Many nonprofits circumvent this rule by simply “educating” their elected officials: talking about the importance of an issue and stating their opinion of what the government should do without actually urging the elected official to take a specific action on a bill. The IRS also defines lobbying (urging an elected official to take action or urging citizens to ask their elected official to do so) as different from electioneering (urging citizens to vote for or against a candidate or party).

While IRS regulations can be very boring, it behooves us as Friends to bear them in mind. Our witness in the world is not limited to any particular candidate or party. We are looking toward the long arc of justice, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said.

All Readings for Reflection
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