What can religious organizations do and not do?
This is an interesting question. The separation of church and state in the United States values an atmosphere of “benign neutrality”, where there is no definition of “religion” and few parameters of its activity. Essentially, so long as it does not violate established public policy or commit illegal acts, religious activity is deemed acceptable. Although Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code includes the “advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose, it does not define what that conduct really looks like.
We often use the term ‘religious organization’ to refer to various faith based organizations, like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Jewish Federation, Lutheran Social Services and East End Community Ministry to name just a few. These faith based social service organizations so often are critical safety nets to alleviate poverty, hunger, delinquency and homelessness. Take a moment and just think of 2020 as an example where their services were incredibly important and visible as hundreds of cars snaked for hours around long lines run by Food Banks just to obtain needed food donations.
Although the term ‘religious organization’ refers as well to ‘churches’, a church is used to mean houses of worship – whether a church, synagogue, mosque or temple. These houses of worship are treated with special consideration, including automatic exempt status, respectful church audits, deductibility for charitable contributions and an overall “hands off approach” by government regulators.
Nonetheless, churches are prohibited from doing certain things: (1) they cannot intervene in political activity; (2) they cannot support or oppose a candidate for office; (3) they cannot engage in activities that are illegal or that violate public policy; and (4) they cannot engage in substantial lobbying activities. It should be noted that they can, however, engage in advocacy and education, hold public forums and debates, and publish voter guides. And, of course, individual clergy and members can speak in their own personal capacities on issues of concern.
The treatment of religion and religious institutions in the United States is one of the hallmarks of our society. Where other countries had state religions and provided charitable services through the ‘Church,’ Americans saw it differently and formed associations to best express their individual beliefs. That independence of thought and action remains with us today.