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A Legacy of Faith, Activism and Revolution: Balancing the First Amendment Rights of Religious Ministries with 501(c)(3) Restrictions on Political Engagement

Recognizing that the challenge before churches and other religious institutions today is in reconciling a moral calling to speak out on issues of the day, especially as they intersect with contemporary politics, with the need to maintain their tax-exempt nonprofit status, which limits their involvement in political campaigning or substantial lobbying, The Rutherford Institute has issued a public policy paper on “A Legacy of Faith, Activism and Revolution: Balancing the First Amendment Rights of Religious Ministries with 501(c)(3) Restrictions on Political Engagement.”

“America’s religious institutions, especially its churches, have helped to foment change throughout its history. In more recent years, especially during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when federal, state and local governments attempted to lockdown communities and limit gatherings, religious institutions found themselves struggling to balance their ministerial mandates with government dictates as to where, how and to what extent they could exercise their right to religious freedom,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The challenge before churches and other religious institutions today is in reconciling a moral calling to speak out on issues of the day, especially as they intersect with contemporary politics, with the need to maintain their tax-exempt nonprofit status, which limits their involvement in political campaigning or substantial lobbying, and has resulted in many churches adopting a conciliatory attitude to the government, which contrasts sharply with their revolutionary forebears.”

“A Legacy of Faith, Activism and Revolution: Balancing the First Amendment Rights of Religious Ministries with 501(c)(3) Restrictions on Political Engagement” speaks to the legal challenges facing pastors, churches and religious communities, especially in light of attempts by the government to dictate to churches and religious individuals about how, when and why they assemble; regulate how they minister to those in need in their communities; and threaten them with sanctions and heightened IRS scrutiny for urging congregants to put their faith into action through political and social activism. The rights of churches and religious individuals have become hotly debated topics in recent years, especially as they are impacted by ongoing discussions about limits to free speech, hate speech and political correctness, political engagement and activism, COVID-19 restrictions on the right of assembly, and the role of religious institutions in helping to shape a moral narrative around pressing issues of the day. As The Rutherford Institute’s public policy paper explains, although the First Amendment affirms the right of religious freedom, churches that seek special exemptions from paying taxes and for receiving tax-deductible contributions are subject to restrictions on political and legislative activities.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, defends individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

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