Hawaii Gov‘t Attempting to Silence Churches Ahead of Midterm Elections, Conservative Legal Group Claims
by Michael Gryboski, Christian Post, Aug 23, 2018
A conservative legal group who recently won a religious liberty case at the Supreme Court warned that the Hawaii government is trying to silence churches ahead of the midterm elections.
The Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter to Hawaii Attorney General Russell Suzuki on Monday taking issue with a guidance letter he sent out last month regarding charities and political activity.
ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley wrote that he believed Suzuki's guidance was "clearly an intimidation tactic leveled at Hawaii's houses of worship to frighten them into silence on the upcoming elections for political office."
"Houses of worship need not be silent during elections out of a misplaced fear that simply participating in the life of their communities and their state, they will somehow run afoul of federal tax law," wrote Stanley.
"Your vague and misleading 'guidance' is nothing more than an attempt to use federal tax law to silence the voice of houses of worship."
Stanley objected to the guidance, noting among other things that Hawaii cannot enforce federal tax law and that he felt the guidance did not give sufficient attention to the things religious bodies are permitted to do.
"Additionally, religious leaders do not surrender their First Amendment freedoms by entering the pastorate," continued Stanley.
"Acting individually, they enjoy the same right to speak as any other citizen. They may freely support or oppose political candidates without violating federal tax law or implicating their church's 501(c)(3) tax status."
On July 23, Hawaii's Department of the Attorney General released a guidance on political activity and charitable organizations in response to the upcoming state and federal elections.
"Tax-exempt charitable organizations should know that they do not share the same legal rights to participate in political activity as individuals and other corporations," stated the Department.
"Organizations exempt from income tax under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3), which include churches, private schools, universities, and humanitarian organizations, pay no federal or Hawaii income taxes and must operate exclusively for their tax-exempt purposes."
The guidance warned that nonprofits could lose their tax-exempt status should they intervene or participate on behalf of a political campaign. It also noted that tax law "does not restrict the free expression of opinions by individuals or leaders who are associated with charitable organizations."
"Statements advocating for the election or defeat of a candidate by an exempt organization's leadership, however, may threaten the organization's tax-exempt status unless the leaders clearly indicate that their comments do not represent the views of the organization and there is no appearance that the organization's resources were used to issue the statement," continued the guidance.
Among the recommendations, the guidance says to "Avoid publishing any statements right before an election advocating for a public policy issue that may divide political candidates," and to "Monitor website links and review social media content to ensure that political material cannot be connected to the tax exempt organization."
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Hawaii attorney general out of bounds to intimidate churches, charitable orgs
ADF letter answers falsehoods, threats apparently designed to frighten houses of worship into silence
News Release from ADF, Aug 21, 2018
HONOLULU – Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Monday to Hawaii Attorney General Russell Suzuki in response to a news release he issued last month with misleading information about how the federal tax code applies to nonprofits, including churches. The news release seeks to silence churches and non-profit charitable organizations by inappropriately threatening their tax-exempt status if they speak about political issues during the upcoming election season.
The ADF letter explains that not only is the information Suzuki issued overstated and lopsided—telling churches and other nonprofits what they supposedly can’t do but saying very little about what they can do—but he also has no authority to enforce federal tax law.
“Churches and charitable organizations have a constitutionally protected freedom to decide for themselves what they want to say or not say without violating the federal tax code,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “The Hawaii attorney general has issued misleading information on a law that is outside of his enforcement authority, leading us to believe that he is simply attempting to bully churches and other nonprofits into silence during the upcoming election season so that their opinions and views won’t be heard.”
As the ADF letter explains to Suzuki, “Houses of worship need not be silent during elections out of a misplaced fear that simply participating in the life of their communities and their state, they will somehow run afoul of federal tax law. Your vague and misleading ‘guidance’ is nothing more than an attempt to use federal tax law to silence the voice of houses of worship. It is not the province of the Attorney General for the State of Hawaii to act as an IRS agent seeking to enforce federal tax law. Nor is it your within your duties as Attorney General to opine on the meaning and application of federal tax law, and certainly not in such a one-sided manner that attempts to intimidate houses of worship and religious leaders in Hawaii.”
In the letter, ADF offers to defend, free of charge, any church leaders threatened simply for exercising their freedom of speech.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
ADF: Letter to Hawaii Attorney General Aug 20, 2018
AG: ATTORNEY GENERAL PROVIDES GUIDANCE FOR CHARITABLE ORGANIZATIONS AND POLITICAL ACTIVITY, July 23, 2018