Thou Shalt Not Electioneer: Religious Nonprofit Political Activity and the Threat “God PACs” Pose to Democracy and Religion
The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC invalidated a longstanding restriction on corporate and union campaign spending in federal elections, freeing entities with diverse political goals to spend unlimited amounts supporting candidates for federal office. Houses of worship and other religious nonprofits, however, remain strictly prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity as a condition of tax-exempt status under Internal Revenue Code § 501(c)(3). Absent this “electioneering prohibition,” religious nonprofits would be very attractive vehicles for political activity. These 501(c)(3) organizations can attract donors with the incentive of tax deductions for contributions. Moreover, houses of worship need not file with a government agency to begin operating and deriving tax benefits, and the IRS has shown reluctance to aggressively audit their activities. Two circuits have previously upheld the electioneering prohibition against legal challenges, but recent jurisprudential shifts expose the tax code provision to challenge under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which directs courts to apply strict scrutiny to facially neutral laws that substantially burden the free exercise of religion. First, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. greatly reduced the barriers to successful RFRA claims. Second, by lifting restrictions on political speech for many other types of organizations, Citizens United magnified the burden the electioneering prohibition imposes on religious organizations. The decision also rejected compelling state interests that might have previously shielded the law from invalidation. This Note is the first analysis of the electioneering prohibition’s vulnerability in this new legal climate. Despite these significant developments, this Note ultimately concludes that the electioneering prohibition can survive RFRA challenges because the prospect for widespread use of religious organizations as conduits for political activity undermines the values reflected in Establishment Clause jurisprudence.
* J.D., December 2015, University of Michigan Law School. I would like to thank Professor Ellen Katz for her guidance and encouragement; Rabbi David Saperstein, Adam Skaggs, Seth Marnin, and Professor Shigeo Hirano for their mentorship; and my friends and family for their unwavering support.