God's Lobbyists: The Hidden Realm of Religious Influence
On the first day, according to the Book of Genesis, the Lord said, “Let there be light.”
But when it comes to the government lobbying efforts of most religious institutions, their activities are notably shrouded in darkness, even as representatives of numerous faiths routinely pressure federal lawmakers on issues ranging from health care to international relations, poverty to abortion rights.
This is largely by government design. In 1995, when Congress passed the Lobbying Disclosure Act in 1995, it provided for a few exceptions, including lobbying communications made by a “church, its integrated auxiliary or a convention or association of churches that is exempt from filing a federal income tax return," as well as a "religious order."
The only instances in which a church must disclose their lobbying is if spends a “substantial” amount of money on lobbying, if more than 20 percent of its lobbyist’s income is from direct lobbying on behalf of the church or if it hires an outside lobbying firm. Then, the hired firm is required to disclose that it has lobbied on behalf of a religious institution. The “substantial” test is a murky one, with little enforcement of it, and as is the 20 percent rule, unless attention is drawn to the organization.
People of faith are divided on whether this lobbying disclosure exception is appropriate.
CHURCH LOBBYING EFFORTS
Darrin Mitchell is a church lobbyist and president of the American Christian Lobbyists Association. While much of the world of undisclosed church lobbying remains hidden, Mitchell offered insight.
“Truthfully, most American citizens, Christians and non-Christians alike, do not follow up their vote by contacting their states elected officials in the U.S. Congress,” he wrote to OpenSecrets Blog in an email.
“The ACLA works to lobby and recruit individual pastors and/or local church members who are generally politically active," he continued, "by encouraging them to retain the lobbying support services of the ACLA to help them individually lobby their elected officials in the U.S. Congress.”
“I currently do not directly represent churches or pastors as a Christian or church lobbyist,” he wrote. “Most of my work when I contact churches is to invite pastors and their congregations to attend ACLA Town Hall meetings or workshops that are held at a neutral location like a community center, town hall or hotel meeting room. If I speak in a church, I have to walk a tight rope as I cannot endorse candidates or parties in that forum.”
While Mitchell does not directly lobby members of Congress, he uses educational efforts to encourage others to do so. Beginning in late 2011, the ACLA aims to create a direct lobbying mechanism.
“We are currently in the developmental phase of this option as we are seeing how our clients respond to this new lobbying option and how many new clients sign up for this program,” he wrote.
But what about when the church-goers he educates do lobby their members of Congress and do not disclose?
"Based on my experience as a Christian and church lobbyist I believe [lobbying disclosure exemptions are] unfair," he wrote, noting that many other pastors would disagree with his position. "By allowing their members to know about their church lobbying activities I also believe that would energize politically active conservative Christians to take a more active part in contacting their states elected officials."
Mitchell, pictured left, wrote that the relationship between churches and the federal government "should be closer" and could be closer by overcoming levels of ignorance regarding lobbying.
"[M]any of the churches and pastors we contact are apolitical in nature due to their misunderstandings of the IRS rules pertaining to the contributions that their church could make for church lobbying activities," he told OpenSecrets Blog.
Many Christian conservatives, he said, "do not know how to make their vote count beyond their vote between each two-year election cycle by directly lobbying their states elected officials in the U.S. Congress."
Churches themselves are exempt from taxes, and they could lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in "substantial" levels of lobbying. There is no bright-line definition of what "substantial" lobbying actually means.
The IRS "considers a variety of factors, including the time devoted (by both compensated and volunteer workers) and the expenditures devoted by the organization to the activity, when determining whether the lobbying activity is substantial," according to IRS Publication 1828, which is geared toward tax-exempt churches and religious organizations.
But, because churches are tax-exempt, they largely slide under the IRS radar. Usually, there is little accountability on these churches to lobby substantially; only a report for an individual or a chance audit will reveal to the IRS any substantial lobbying. A church's major deterrence to "substantial" lobbying is the loss of their tax-exempt status.
With these rules, however murky, in place, some view the lack of sunlight in religious lobbying as rational.
Frank Guliuzza, professor of government and dean of academic affairs at Patrick Henry College, a Christian institution, told OpenSecrets Blog “the law treats those who wish to lobby motivated by their religious beliefs the same way it treats those who wish to lobby motivated by their feminist beliefs, their socialist believes, their support for Tea Party ideas and the like. They can raise money to speak out; they can contact elected officials; they can contact heads of regulatory agencies; they can submit amicus curiae briefs -- all of the many forms of lobbying -- without registering as professional lobbyists.
“However, if a church or religious organization sets up an outfit that will employ professional lobbyists, the lobbyists must register like other professionals," he continued. "That distinction seems both reasonable and fair.”
Enter religious organizations that aren't themselves churches.
One such group that knows how to lobby is the National Association of Evangelicals. As an association of churches, it is also exempt from lobbying disclosure rules. An association publication, For the Health of the Nation, implicitly refers to lobbying.
"Evangelical Christians in America face a historic opportunity," the preamble begins. "We make up fully one quarter of all voters in the most powerful nation in history. Never before has God given American evangelicals such an awesome opportunity to shape public policy."
"The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is directed only at government and restrains its power," it continues. "Thus, for example, the clause was never intended to shield individuals from exposure to the religious views of nongovernmental speakers. Exemptions from regulations or tax burdens do not violate the Establishment Clause, for government does not establish religion by leaving it alone."
In other words, the National Association of Evangelicals believes that lobbying disclosure exemptions is not a violation of the First Amendment.
Spokesmen for the National Association of Evangelicals, as well as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, did not respond to request by OpenSecrets Blog for interviews despite numerous attempts.
Mitchell, as a lobbyist, says that he "spend[s] the majority of my day conducting telephone, online or personal, face-to-face lobbying meetings."
In addition to meetings, he teaches citizens how to lobby, conducts town hall meetings and responds to questions and requests.
His organization has inspired meetings with many members of Congress in a lobbying capacity from politically-interested Christians.
"It has always been a goal of the ACLA to get our clients to personally contact their states elected officials in person, by general mail and/or by telephone," Mitchell told OpenSecrets Blog. "As a result of these efforts… I believe that we have been successful in contacting the majority of the members of the U.S. Congress over the past seven years."
Because churches do not disclose with whom they meet, it is impossible to definitively tell if they have indeed met with lawmakers -- though, as Mitchell says, they have.
Paul Flusche, the press secretary of Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), said by email that "[r]ecognizing the right of people to meet with their elected officials in private, this office routinely does not disclose with whom the Congressman and his staff have met or what was discussed."
Other congressional offices stressed the need to meet with constituents regardless of their exemption from lobbying disclosure.
"Rep. [Glenn] Thompson [R-N.C.] is on the Congressional Prayer Caucus, but it has no bearing as to whom he does or does not meet with," press secretary Braden Parish told OpenSecrets Blog. "As a matter of office policy, Rep. Thompson does not discriminate as to whom he meets with, especially if they are from the Fifth District."
Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) is the founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.
Forbes "and members of his staff meet with countless constituents and numerous organizations both in Washington D.C. and in our district offices," press secretary Joe Hack told OpenSecrets Blog in an email.
"Given the variety of these organizations, it would be logical to conclude that meetings have included individuals or groups recognized by the IRS as charitable organizations in addition to those that are required to file under the LDA; the meetings cover a range of topics, from faith issues to preserving our national defense," Hack continued. "Meeting requests are not screened to determine an organization’s filing status, so we do not know which groups fall into which category."
'WE FEEL THE SUN NEEDS TO SHINE'
Some groups view church lobbying disclosure exemptions as unfair, unnecessary or even unconstitutional.
These exemptions "would shock Thomas Jefferson and James Madison," Sean Fairchild, the executive director of the Secular Coalition of America, told OpenSecrets Blog.
"Any privileging of religion in law is of great concern to our organization, and I would hope it would be of great concern to any American," Fairchild continued.
He condemned the special exemption granted to churches in lobbying disclosure.
"We should absolutely have disclosure," he said. "There should be sunshine just like for any other organizations."
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, equated these special exemption rules with the notorious Jonestown Massacre and Pastor Jim Jones incident.
"He was not beholden to the government to report anything," she told OpenSecrets Blog. "This is the perfect cover."
"The whole thing stinks," she continued.
"It's a problem. Why wouldn't they do it?" she asked, referencing the act of disclosing.
Even among the religious, there is some degree of skepticism on the rules.
During the health care debate in 2009 and 2010, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was a strong lobbying presence on Capitol Hill.
"It's very important that legislators consider carefully whether they take the advice of these bishops," David Nolan, communications director of Catholics for Choice told OpenSecrets Blog. "The bishops represent these matters in a very black and white manners."
"We do think it would be helpful if everybody could see in a religious denomination could see what their leaders are up to," Nolan continued. He argued that when lobbying, bishops claim to represent all 64 million Catholics, but in reality, they do not.
A poll conducted by the Catholic for Choice concluded that “Catholic voters believe the U.S. Catholic bishops are wrong on healthcare reform. Sixty-eight percent disapprove of U.S. bishops saying that all Catholics should oppose the entire healthcare reform plan if it includes coverage for abortion and 56 percent think the bishops should not take a position on healthcare reform legislation in Congress.”
Unrepresentative power remains the foundation for many opponents of the current disclosure exemption for churches.
"It's like having a shadow government," Gaylor said. "Somebody else holds the puppet strings."
WHO ACTUALLY DISCLOSES?
Some churches do disclose their lobbying efforts, but only when hiring outside lobbyists. Other organizations that are religiously-oriented -- but not churches -- that disclose their lobbying efforts.
By far the largest religious organization that discloses its lobbying is the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit founded by members of the Society of Friends, or Quaker church.
In 2010, it spent more than $1.8 million on federal lobbying efforts, an increase of $1.2 million from 2009, according to Center for Responsive Politics' research. During 2008, the group posted a record high of more than $2 million.
“Quakers value integrity and truth-telling highly, so we willingly disclose our lobbying activities,” Jessica Halperin, FCNL's communications program assistant, wrote to OpenSecrets Blog in an email.
“Churches should disclose their lobbying efforts in order to be accountable to their members and their communities, particularly if they are a 501(c)(3) organization and their lobbying is being subsidized by taxpayers,” she continued. “If churches are lobbying, they should follow the rules and disclose their lobbying activities. If they enter the public discourse, they should be subject to the public debate.”
The Friends Committee has lobbied on dozens of bills and involves itself in contentious legislation.
Among the issues it has lobbied in favor of during the past include prohibitions on increasing the number of American forces in Afghanistan. Indeed, the organization claims to be "the largest team of registered peace lobbyists in Washington, D.C.," according to its website.
It has also lobbied on the health care reform bill, the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, better known as the cap-and-trade bill and the Uniting American Families Act of 2009, which would prohibit an immigration judge from deporting an illegal immigrant parent of a child who is a U.S. citizen. During the legislative debate on climate change last year, it also lobbied on the "cap-and-trade" bill sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), as OpenSecrets Blog previously reported.
The Church of Scientology and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, are the only organized denominations to disclose any of their lobbying in 2010, according to the Center's research, likely because they hired outside lobbyists.
In 2010, the Church of Scientology spent $110,000, in part lobbying in favor of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which would create a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission of experts tasked with reviewing the nation’s criminal justice system and offering recommendations for reform.
The First Church of Christ, Scientist, spent $40,000 on lobbying in 2010, down from a high of $150,000 in 2009. In 2008, the church did not report any lobbying expenditures.
In 2009, the church lobbied on the health care reform bill and the areas of "spiritual care." In 2010, it lobbied only on issues of "spiritual care," according to the Center's research. Among its lobbyists is former Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- notable for its involvement in contentious social issues such as Proposition 8 in California during the 2008 election cycle and ballot measures in other states regarding marriage issues -- has only disclosed lobbying the federal government once, according to the Center's research.
In 2009, the LDS Church hired A. Elizabeth Jones, a former ambassador to Kazakhstan, to lobby for an increased religious status in Italy.
"The church has spent years negotiating the intesa, an Italian term that means 'understanding,'" according to an article from The National Law Journal. "An intesa carries certain privileges, as well as granting the highest status given to religions in Italy. Each agreement must be individually negotiated."
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Darrin Mitchell, the American Christian Lobbyists Association lobbyist, as well as some secular advocates agree that church lobbying disclosure is a goal for the future, though for very different reasons.
"Overall, accountability in this area would eventually lead to substantial political change on many of the issues that concern politically active conservative Christians in the United States," Mitchell told OpenSecrets Blog.
"I believe that disclosure in this area would energize our base of financial support and could led to a future overturning of Roe v. Wade, the passage of a constitutional amendment protecting [the Defense of Marriage Act] and greater protections of Christian Free Speech issues," he continued.
Likewise, Sean Fairchild of the Secular Coalition of America says he will continue to advocate for full disclosure of church lobbying to increase sunshine and to combat the "privilege of religion in law that offends the Constitution and intent of the Founders."
Meanwhile, Frank Guliuzza, the professor at Patrick Henry College, seems to find the status quo reasonable.
“Those [religious institutions] that do not hire professionals, are no more keeping their efforts ‘secret’ than are any other groups that facilitate grassroots lobbying," he said.
“If, however, religious people or religious groups were not permitted to engage in grassroots lobbying or otherwise participate as American citizens in political activism, then it is quite likely that the preventative legislation would be in violation of the establishment clause, the free exercise clause and probably the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”