Political Free Speech Report Sparks Disagreement

A leading coalition for nonprofits has come out strongly against a recommendation to eliminate regulations that ban political speech by charities and religious organizations.

Independent Sector (IS) in Washington, D.C., issued a statement slamming a report released yesterday by the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations (CAPRO). The 60-page report included recommendations to change the current regulations on political speech by religious organizations and other nonprofits. Among the recommendations made were that clergy should be able to say whatever they believe is appropriate in the context of their religious services or other regular religious activities even when that includes content related to political candidates. Such communication would be permissible as long as the organization’s cost would be the same with or without it.

“This is a deeply disturbing and troubling option,” said IS President & CEO Diana Aviv. “We think it should not be a possibility,” she said.

In reading the report and its recommendations, Aviv said some were unclear while other parts were contradictory and required further reading and study. The intent is to “drive a truck” through the clear separation of political activity and nonpartisan political activity from other activity.

“While we agree with the commission that there is no clarity in this area, the solution is not to gut everything,” Aviv said. “This actually contaminates our advocacy work,” she said.

The commission was established by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) in Winchester, Va., as a response to Sen. Charles Grassley’s (R-Iowa) request to coordinate a national effort on political expression and tax policy regarding nonprofits, and in particular religious organizations. The commission is comprised of 14 members and 66 panel members.

Aviv said she declined an invitation to be part of an advisory panel because as an advisory member, she was unsure what, if any control, there would be over a final report and her early indicates pointed to such a recommendation. She also had concerns about the ability to present dissenting opinions. In speaking with several panelists, Aviv said she was told that they were required to sign a statement that they would not speak out after the report was released.

ECFA President Dan Busby countered that commission and panel members were free to share their view points, such as through position papers published on the commission’s website, adding that there was a confidentiality agreement with respect to the commission’s proceedings prior to the release of the report.

About the only item in the report that IS agreed with was that current regulations are vague and require clarity. There’s a strong argument to be made for reviewing the limits put in place in 1969 and 1976, Aviv said. Current regulations allow charities to interact with public officials on a limited basis, which Aviv said is an appropriate distinction since organizations work to educate officials on issues relevant to their missions and members.

“Speaking out and engaging in advocacy on issues is critical to the ability of nonprofits to achieve their missions. This is an entirely different matter than endorsing candidates or getting involved in political campaigns,” she said.

Independent Sector has aligned itself with the Bright Lines Project (BLP), an effort started in 2009 by the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch) that grew out of frustration with the IRS rules about nonpartisan political activity. The effort has since been taken up by Public Citizen and is in the process of developing a set of recommendations making clear what activities should be, Aviv said.

Three solutions are necessary, Aviv said, to address the issue: greater clarify over what is political activity: clearer definition of what “unsubstantial” means for 501(c)(4) organizations; and disclosure of donors to 501(c)(4) organizations if their donations are used for partisan activity.