Church leaders who want to stop Maryland from enacting marriage equality should be cautious when using a new website that helps them circumvent the Internal Revenue Service's rules against political activity.
The site is called Marriage for Maryland, and it includes a flier that promises "general guidelines for churches in determining how to affect government and public policy without jeopardizing their nonprofit status."
In it, pastors are told they can personally endorse candidates for office and appear in campaign literature and advertisements so long as they keep a low profile. "It should be made very clear that the pastor or clergyman is stating his personal position -- not that of the church," contends the pamphlet, from the right-wing group Concerned Women for America. "It is wise to not make such statements on a regular basis to prevent the positions from being attributed to the church."
And that's a pretty big risk. The IRS website says, "Organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign." The IRS warns that "public statements" on behalf of the group, even in writing, that favor or oppose any candidate "clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity."
The IRS emphasizes that what's inappropriate often comes with "evidence of bias," so intent matters.
The brochure was first noticed by The Washington Independent. On the pamphlet's last page, a disclaimer cautions that it "should not be interpreted as legal advice."
Maryland governor Martin O'Malley has pledged to advance a marriage equality bill, which failed during the last legislative session. And Roman Catholic archbishop Edwin O'Brien had already privately contacted the governor, urging him to back down. But the archbishop's letter came to light when the governor decided to respond publicly.
"As governor, I am sworn to uphold the law without partiality or prejudice," he wrote in reply. "When shortcomings in our laws bring about a result that is unjust, I have a public obligation to try to change that injustice."