I’ve written before on Rep. Larry Lockman’s claim that candidate Ben Chin, himself a lay Episcopal minister, is “an anti-Christian bigot.”
Now it appears he is mixed up about whether Chin was allowed to talk politics from the pulpit of a church.
Rep. Lockman recently talked about this during a radio interview after host Ric Tyler raised the question of whether such discussions threatened the tax-free status of Chin’s church.
After Tyler contended the Episcopal Church “risked its tax free status,” Lockman replied, “One would think so.”
Both also discussed the separation of church and state and wondered why that did not apply in Chin’s case.
But separation of church and state doesn’t mean religious leaders can’t speak out. The two parts of the First Amendment that concern religion are the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause. Those mean that the government can’t regulate religious observances and otherwise interfere with religion, nor establish an official church.
The Constitution also states there cannot be a religious test for public office that would limit office holding to members of a particular religion or religions.
It is perfectly legal to talk about political issues in a church and other houses of worship.
Let’s start with one example.
In 2009, numerous Maine churches not only discussed their opposition to marriage equality but raised money for the effort.
As the Bangor Daily News reported back then:
Protect Marriage Maine has been in contact with about 800 churches across the state and expects 150 to 200 to participate in the Father’s Day collections, Conley said. They include Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Church of God, Wesleyan, Evangelical Free, Advent Christian and other denominations. . .
Conley also has obtained endorsements from well-known gay-marriage opponents who recorded video and audio clips to be played at churches taking part in Maine’s collection-plate drive, he said. . .
Conley said he realized churches should play a central role in the Maine campaign after being in North Carolina earlier this month when voters approved an amendment to the state constitution affirming that marriage may only be a union of a man and a woman.
“I was impressed with the coordination I saw among the faith community in North Carolina,” he said.
Those conservative churches were well in their rights to take these very active positions, as were other houses of worship that supported marriage equality in 2009.
Whatever their view of same-sex marriage, it was not only legal for them to take positions, but also clearly within the norms of religious practice.
Great civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. discussed political issues quite frequently, including from the pulpit. Moreover, King was often critical of his fellow ministers for their lack of support for civil rights issues.
Catholic leaders have long weighed in on public issues, whether in their opposition to abortion, the death penalty and major cuts in social programs.
When Pope Francis visited the United States he warned “clergy members, nuns and brothers that taking a business-inspired approach to their ministries can dampen their spirit of ‘generous self-sacrifice.’”
Any look back in American politics will find many churches and synagogues and mosques where political positions are taken. IRS regulations for tax-free institutions do prohibit candidate endorsements but they certainly do not prevent churches from taking positions on public policy.
Limiting what they could say on public questions would in fact limit their First Amendment rights.
Whatever one thinks of what Chin preached, all houses of worship and religious leaders — whether conservative, liberal or whatever — have the right to bear witness on the concerns they have about public issues.