The collection plate

February 28, 2006

At first blush it seems paradoxical that churches should be such powerful political actors in a country devoted to the separation of church and state. But that wall actually enables churches to take partisan stands on issues in a way that an official religious establishment might not care to. Black churches, evangelical churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have all rolled up their sleeves and plunged into the fray; it's the way the American system works, and it's no criticism of those churches to point that out.

The line, though, is drawn at explicit endorsements and political contributions. Because a church is a tax-exempt institution, any money it gives a politician is in essence also tax-exempt, and that's just not allowed by the law. Politicians can visit churches, pastors can preach on the issues, congregants can make as many donations as the law permits - but a church, as an institution, is barred from making a direct contribution. Over the years, there have naturally been violations, but most American church leaders have been careful to stay within the letter - if perhaps not the spirit - of the law.

On Sunday, The Sun's John Fritze reported that more than 100 churches in Maryland have made political contributions in recent years. Most of those contributions have been quite small; in several cases, they involved the purchase of tickets to a dinner, and it may not have been clear that this included a campaign contribution. The burden, nonetheless, is on the churches themselves to become familiar with, and follow, the law.

Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Democrat from Baltimore County, appears to lead the field in church contributions, having received almost $16,000 in the past five years. Delegate Burns told Mr. Fritze that he believes the Internal Revenue Service should change its rules so that churches can give money to candidates. That's a point that might be worth debating, though we would find ourselves on opposite sides of the fence from Delegate Burns. But in the meantime, a man who is both an elected official and a pastor - of Rising Sun First Baptist Church, in Woodlawn, which itself has given him $500 - should know better, and act according to the rules.

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