Isn't this more than a little chilling?
Tax-exempt organizations, including churches, are barred from endorsing political candidates. But they can lobby, as the USCCB* does (it even has its own government relations department, as do other religious denominations). Yet while corporations, individuals, and secular non-profits who lobby the government are required to file publicly available forms under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, a church or "its integrated auxiliary, a convention or association of churches and religious orders" are not. If they hire an outside firm to lobby on their behalf, that firm must file under the LDA, disclosing the pieces of legislation lobbied on, the names of the lobbyists, the amount of money spent on lobbying, and other details. But if the church does its own lobbying -- as with an in-house government relations department -- it is exempt from the LDA.
Moreover, the IRS rules exempting houses of worship from filing tax returns further shields them from transparency requirements. Although tax-exempt organizations may lobby, they must limit it to a certain proportion of their time and revenue, and document this on their tax returns and other documents. But because houses of worship are exempted from filing tax returns, again, exactly how many resources they devote to lobbying is shielded from public view.
*Catlick bishops gang
And, given the general religious nuttiness in the US, anybody who tried to change this bit of law would be promptly Scozzafava-ed.
Anybody know what churches can get up to in Canada?
ADDED: Here's the scoop on charities and political activity in Canada:
A registered charity can devote part of its resources to political activities provided substantially all of its resources are devoted to charitable activities. As a general rule, we consider a charity that devotes no more than 10% of its total resources a year to political activities to be operating within the substantially all requirement.
However, we recognize that this administrative guideline may have a negative impact on smaller charities. Therefore, the following thresholds will apply:
* Registered charities with less than $50,000 annual income in the previous year can devote up to 20% of their resources to political activities in the current year.
* Registered charities whose annual income in the previous year was between $50,000 and $100,000 can devote up to 15% of their resources to political activities in the current year.
* Registered charities whose annual income in the previous year was between $100,000 and $200,000 can devote up to 12% of their resources to political activities in the current year.
And at the Library of Parliament I found this.
The restrictions placed on charities engaged in political activities may also prevent otherwise deserving organizations from engaging in important public policy dialogues. During the same-sex marriage debate, for example, the Bishop of Calgary wrote an open letter that said he would consider excommunicating Prime Minister Paul Martin over his government’s plan to legalize same-sex marriage. The CRA responded, stating that the Catholic Church’s charitable status could be put in jeopardy if the Bishop continued to engage in partisan political activity.(15) The ITA was amended in 2005 by Bill C-38, to offer additional assurances that a charity would not be discriminated against for expressing its views on same-sex marriage; however, this amendment contains limitations.(16)
According to the letter of the law, the CRA’s interpretation is understandable: the ITA forbids partisan political activity, and suggesting that a party leader’s views are immoral could be seen as tacit partisan political support for his or her opponents. Critics, however, questioned why a religious figure could not have reservations about the morality of a political leader’s beliefs without risking revocation of the organization’s charitable status.(17) Religious views on morality will occasionally clash with legislated morality, as expressed, for example, through the Criminal Code. In such cases, a threat by the CRA to revoke charitable status could be seen in part as a move to shield government policy from unwanted criticism. The rule against political discourse also seems to fetter the values of freedom of expression and freedom of religion that are enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially where charities are expected to fulfil a role as the “voice of conscience” in relation to the government of the day.
(16) Bill C-38, An Act respecting certain aspects of legal capacity for marriage for civil purposes (1st Sess., 38th Parl., 2004-2005), contained a clause that protects the right of a registered charity to engage in the same-sex marriage debate without fear of losing charitable status. Bill C-38 did not, however, change the requirement that the charity devote at least 90% of its charitable resources to its primary purpose, for example the advancement of its religion. Nor can a charity engage in partisan political debate on the same-sex marriage issue. The section simply gives an extra statutory assurance that debating the merits of same-sex marriage, if ancillary and incidental to the charity’s primary purpose, will not lead to revocation of charitable status.
So, if I'm reading this correctly, it seems that religious groups do have to disclose their lobbying efforts and do risk their tax-free status if they exceed the limit.