Guidelines for church engagement in elections

political-leadersinsideThe Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) has prepared an Election Kit in advance of the federal election October 19. Sections include: A Call to Prayer; Understanding Canadian Elections; and Tips for Holding an All Candidates’ Meeting. Following is the section on Guidelines for Church Engagement in Elections.

Whether it is federal, provincial, municipal or school board elections, your church can participate in the democratic process.  

However, given that many churches are registered with the Canada Revenue Agency as charities with the ability to issue income tax receipts, there are certain considerations and policies that must be considered. The government has set out specific guidelines that outline the allowable political activities of charities.  

What churches can do  

Here are five actions that churches can take to encourage their members to be responsible Christian citizens during an election:

1.  Church members are encouraged to get to know the candidates, pray for them, and ask about issues of interest or concern. It is highly beneficial for members to become involved in the electoral process and to vote. During a federal election, the EFC publishes an election kit that provides information on federal jurisdiction issues of particular interest to evangelicals.  
2.  As a charitable institution, a church must be non-partisan. In other words, a church may not endorse a particular candidate or political party, or use its resources to support a candidate or party (even if they attend your own church).  
3.  Church staff, volunteers or members of a church are free to engage in political activity outside the church, on their own time and/or with their own money.  
4.  Churches may invite all candidates to speak at the same event or service where the church meets. Churches can also organize an all-candidates’ debate.  
5.  Churches are free to provide information on issues of interest or concern that flow from biblical teaching, as long as the church does not link its views to any party or candidate. A church is also allowed to publish how all Members of Parliament, provincial representatives or municipal councillors or school board trustees voted on a given issue.  

Get your congregation or faith community involved with election issues. Invite them to pray for the candidates, and consider how they can respond to God’s call to justice through the election process.  

Share information about all-candidates meetings and encourage people to vote   

Remember that your vote matters. The number of people who vote in an election can steadily increase if churches choose to get their congregations involved.  

Some actions, however, may put a church’s charitable status at risk.  

What churches cannot do

1.  Invite candidates to speak at different times, or at separate events or services.  
2.  Promote or oppose any one (or more) candidate or political party.  
3.  Post signs for a candidate or political party on church property.  
4.  Endorse a candidate or party from the pulpit.  
5.  Highlight or publish how one particular party or candidate voted on a given issue.  
6.  Distribute literature for any one candidate or party.  
7.  Encourage its members to vote for a particular candidate or party.  
8.  Link its views on issues of concern with those of a particular party or candidate.  
9.  Collect a church offering for a political candidate or a political party.  

Churches that engage in prohibited activities such as partisan politics can face deregistration and lose their charitable status.

What churches may do  

Certain Canada Revenue Agency policies as well as certain provisions of the Income Tax Act permit a limited amount of “political activity” to be undertaken by churches that are registered charities.  

A political activity is an activity that is non-partisan in nature, that is connected and subordinate to the church’s charitable purposes, legal and which falls within the expenditures limits as prescribed by the Income Tax Act. The CRA considers a church’s activity to be political when: 

*  they explicitly communicate (regardless of the form) a call for political action; 

*  they explicitly communicate that a law, policy or government decision should be maintained, opposed or changed;

*  their materials establish that the purpose of the activity is to incite, organize or pressure government representatives to maintain, oppose or change the law, policy or a government decision.  

The government has set limits on expenditures and resources spent on advancing political activities. As the Income Tax Act requires that charities must devote “substantially all” of their resources to charitable activities, only the remainder can be spent on political activities.

As “substantially all” has been interpreted to mean 90 percent or more, this means that a church can only spend 10 percent or less of its resources on political activities (smaller charities with annual incomes between $50,000 and $200,000 may spend a little more than the 10 percent limit, please contact the CRA for more information).  

Resources spent include financial assets, as well as anything used to achieve these purposes such as use of the church/charity’s premises, equipment, staff, volunteers and directors. Please note that resources used for political activities cannot be applied towards the church’s disbursement quota requirements.  
 
Some examples of political activities include:

1.  Organizing a rally, march or public prayer gathering at or near a legislature or other prominent location in order to pressure government representatives to change or adopt a policy or position.  

2.  Buying space in a newspaper or magazine or buying radio time in order to promote a position that the church is supporting and attempting to pressure the government to change or adopt a policy or position.  

3.  Organizing a letter writing campaign for its members to pressure the government to change or adopt a policy or position.  

4.  Creating a mass mailing campaign to members to encourage them to contact the government to change or adopt a policy or position.  

5.  Preaching a sermon on a biblical principle and encouraging members to contact the government to encourage them to change or adopt a policy or position.  
 
As long as the church itself remains non-partisan, individual members in their personal capacity are free to exercise their freedom of speech and their freedom of choice. Encourage family, friends and other church members to value and make good use of their democratic right to vote, and to speak up about issues they are passionate about.  

This document is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you are unsure about a certain event or campaign, seek legal counsel and/or contact the CRA directly.

Church for Vancouver will look at election guidelines produced by a number of Christian organizations, including Citizens for Public Justice, the Association for Reformed Political Action and the Canadian Council of Churches.

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