What are churches allowed to do during an election? three key questions

Deina Warren of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities (left) and Julia Beazley of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada answered questions about churches and the upcoming elections in a recent EFC webinar.

During the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s recent webinar on what churches can and can’t do during an election, we noted that many of the participants had the same kinds of questions.

Questions like what kinds of involvement church members or pastors could have during a campaign in their personal time; whether churches can get involved on policy issues or legislation and more.

(Note that these guidelines are for registered charities who issue tax receipts for charitable donations. A church is not required to register as a charity and be subject to these guidelines, but then would not receive the benefits of charitable status.)

We could see from our busy webinar that churches have many questions. Here are the top three from the webinar:

Q1. If a church member is running as a candidate, what can they do or not do?

The bottom line is that charities must treat all candidates and political parties on a level playing field, as the EFC’s Julia Beazley explained in the webinar. One candidate can’t be invited to speak at an event or meeting, unless all candidates are invited.

This would mean that even a candidate who is a church member could not be invited to speak about the election at a coffee hour or set up an information table in the church. However, a candidate can attend services and have private conversations before and after services.

If all local candidates are invited to speak at or attend an event but not all agree to come or respond, the event can still go ahead with those who do respond. So long as all they have all been offered an invitation in good faith to participate, the event can proceed.

Deina Warren from the Canadian Council of Christian Charities (CCCC) suggested in the webinar that it may be a good idea for a charity to keep records about which candidates were invited to speak, when invitations were sent, and when candidates accepted or declined.

Another important guiding principle is that a registered charity can’t support or oppose a particular party or candidate, or use its resources to support or oppose them. These include staff and volunteer hours – in their capacity as staff or volunteers of the church or charity, on church or charity time, as well as church or charity resources such as computers, telephones, photocopiers, etc.

A charity that has a blog or social media account on which the public is able to comment is also responsible to monitor the comments on its social media accounts and take down posts that support or oppose a candidate/party.

For more information on political activity by charities, see the January 2019 Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) guidance.

Q2. What are the guidelines for a pastor who would like to volunteer for a campaign on their personal time?

As Deina Warren of the CCCC explained, pastors must be cautious and draw a very clear line between their personal support or involvement with a political candidate/party and their role in the church.

One of the CRA’s examples of the kind of direct support that is prohibited for a charity is “sending volunteers, paid staff or board members to accompany a candidate in a door-to-door election campaign, as representatives of the charity.”

The CRA guidance goes on to say:

Under the Income Tax Act, representatives of a charity can publicly voice their personal views on political issues, but must not use events or functions organized by a charity, the charity’s publications, or other resources as a platform to voice their views on these issues.

In situations outside charity functions and publications, representatives of a charity, particularly leaders, who want to speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to indicate that their comments are personal rather than the views of the charity. This is particularly important in the case of social media, where it may be difficult to tell whether a representative’s messages reflect his or her personal views, or those of a charity.

Q3. Can a church refer to bills by name or number and explain what is contained in a bill? Can a pastor encourage the congregation to write or phone their MPs regarding their opinion on a bill?

A charity can engage on a policy issue, as long as it aligns with their charitable objectives, in a way that is non-partisan and doesn’t identify their position with any one political party.

Until recently, CRA guidelines allowed charities to use a limited portion of their resources to call for a change in the law or to ask people to contact their elected official. Now, as long as a charity’s policy dialogue and development activities are carried on in furtherance of their charitable purposes, the Income Tax Act places no limits on the amount of policy dialogue and development a charity can engage in.

A person who is a volunteer or someone who is contacting their MP on their own behalf does not need to register as a lobbyist.

Anyone who lobbies the government as part of their job, calling for changes to laws or policies, may need to register as a lobbyist if the lobbying reaches a certain threshold. As the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying states in Ten Things You Should Know About Lobbying:

Not all lobbying activity requires registration. For example:

  • Corporations and not-for-profit organizations may conduct some lobbying activities and not be required to file a registration if the cumulative lobbying activities of all employees do not constitute 20 percent or more of one person’s duties over a period of a month.

Please note, this content is for information only and is no substitute for legal advice.

For more information on lobbying, see the website of the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, www.lobbycanada.gc.ca.

For more information on charities engaging on policy issues, see the January 2019 CRA guidance on its website.

This article is re-posted by permission.

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