Prayer and politicking: Churches become a center of the California recall campaign

Faith E. Pinho, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

Republican recall candidate and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer planned to set up an appearance outside Christ First Covina church at an event last month. But about half an hour before Faulconer arrived, a church official told the organizers that Christ First could not host political events for fear of affecting its nonprofit status. The campaign moved next door to the sidewalk in front of Covina Public Library.

The Internal Revenue Service restricts certain political activities for 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including many faith organizations. To be considered a tax-exempt nonprofit, the IRS website states, an organization “may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”

Candidates running to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in the recall election include, clockwise from top left: businessman John Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Caitlyn Jenner, Democrat Kevin Paffrath, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, and Larry Elder, nationally syndicated conservative radio host.

Campaigning has a long history inside houses of worship, but aside from the occasional example, the IRS rarely intervenes when religious institutions are alleged to overstep the bounds.

“You kind of almost have to ask the question like, what are the things you can say that if they were recorded, and somehow the IRS engaged in an audit, and you took it to court, you are likely to lose,” University of California, Santa Barbara religious studies assistant professor Joseph Blankholm said. “That’s kind of how we have to put it. Because we’re really that far down on the likelihood of enforceability.”

When asked by the Los Angeles Times if he contemplated whether his visit might jeopardize a church’s nonprofit status, Kiley said, “I take it that that’s something they have considered."


He added: “I don’t really offer legal advice to anyone who offers me invitations to meet with them.”

Recent research shows that politicking by congregations has increased in recent years, particularly among Black Protestant churchgoers. A majority of congregations in the U.S. engage in at least one politically related activity, including nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts and candidate endorsements, according to research by sociologists Kraig Beyerlein of the University of Notre Dame and Mark Chaves of Duke University citing the National Congregations Study.

“The touchstone is if you’re engaging in partisan political activity,” said UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff. “Usually a church or synagogue isn’t going to say — if there was a regular election — ‘Support Newsom’ or ‘Support the Republican.’ The recall is a bit of a gray area, because it’s not necessarily partisan. In fact, Newsom himself isn’t even listed as a Democrat. On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious what the partisan complexion is of this campaign, and many of the candidates have their own party affiliation listed.”

IKAR Jewish community in Los Angeles has ramped up its activism since pledging to be a 100% voting community more than five years ago. Volunteers started phone banking to other members, congregants were sent home with “Know your representative” cards and the synagogue advocated for ballot initiatives and legislation.


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