Civic Process Specialists: Some Thoughts

A couple weeks ago, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the church told Utah stake presidents to start calling “specialists who can assist church members to better understand and participate in the civic process.” Over the weekend, I listened to Ep. 82 of the Trib‘s “Mormon Land” podcast, which discussed this calling with the Hinckley Institute’s Morgan Lyon Cotti. That discussion was an excellent and substantive discussion of why the church might be interested in doing this, and the benefits of additional civic engagement.

At this point, it’s not clear precisely what being a civic process specialist will entail, though, among other things, they might help people figure out how to register to vote, figure out how, when, and where to vote, and, apparently, given them some guidance with Utah’s caucus system. The church has been clear that it will continue to be neutral with respect to candidates and parties. Still, there are people who worry that the specialists will be less nonpartisan than the church. Which brings up the question: can the church do this, or is it going to lose its tax exemption?

Spoiler alert: it’s not going to lose its exemption.

As background—a background I’ve laid out a bunch of times—the church is exempt from the federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Code. That means it doesn’t pay taxes on (at least most of) its income, and donors (or, at least, donors who itemize) can deduct their donations as they calculate their tax liabilities.

Exemption under section 501(c)(3) comes with its limitations. For our purposes, there are two limitations on an exempt organization’s ability to participate in politics. First, “no substantial part” of its activities can entail trying to influence legislation. (For these purposes, influencing legislation includes both lobbying directly and encouraging the public to lobby.) Second, an exempt organization cannot endorse or oppose candidates for office.

The specialists are not going to cause the church to violate the first limitation. True, there’s some ambiguity about how to measure “no substantial part.” Maybe its the percentage of assets used on the politicking vs. the percentage of assets used for everything. Maybe its the time spent on politicking vs. the time spent overall. So assume every ward in the church called two civic process specialists. Even if the median ward only has 100 people who attend, the activities of two out of 100 will almost certainly not rise to the level of substantial, no matter what metric we use. (That’s compounded by the fact that, at least for now, this is just a Utah thing and, for various reasons, no matter how well it works in the Mountain West, I suspect it will be hard to scale in areas with less Mormon density.)

But what about the absolute prohibition on endorsing and opposing candidates for office? I mean, people are people, and even if the church absolutely and definitively tells these civic process specialists not to discuss who to vote for, someone is almost certainly going to tell ward members that they should vote against (or, I suppose, for) Trump in 2020. So isn’t the church taking a huge risk?

No. Not really. I mean, this is kind of a complicated issue, because tax-exempt organizations, while they’re legal persons, aren’t person-persons. They can’t act independently—they can only act when people act on their behalf. So are the actions of civic process specialists going to be attributed to the church?

The IRS released a revenue ruling (basically, an official statement of its policies) in 2007 going through hypothetical situations, and evaluating whether those situations violated the prohibition on endorsements. There’s a lot of detail there, but, in broad strokes, there are a couple points that are relevant:

  • The IRS expressly blesses voter registration, education, and get-out-the-vote drives by tax-exempt organizations, as long as they’re handled in a nonpartisan manner.
  • The IRS recognizes that leaders of tax-exempt organizations may want to endorse or oppose candidates. That’s fine—even when the leader is identified as a leader of the exempt organizations—as long as the endorsement is made in a personal capacity, rather than an official capacity.

I’ll note that the revenue ruling doesn’t map perfectly onto the church’s largely lay-driven organization. I would say, though, that I would be hard-pressed to argue that your average ward member’s comments could be attributed to the church. Like, if a member gets up to bear her testimony, and endorses Pete Buttigieg, there’s no way that endorsement can be attributed to the church.

And yes, a testimony is self-drive. But what if the bishop asks a member to give a talk, and in that talk, the member tells ward members that they should vote for Elizabeth Warren? At that point, she wasn’t entirely going on her own—the bishop, after all, asked her to speak—but she’s speaking in her individual capacity. I mean, heck, the Sunday School teacher slips in an endorsement of Kamala Harris? Still no violation. It’s hard to see how an endorsement by the civic process specialist would be any different.

(Note here that I’m not saying that these testimony/talk/lesson endorsements are a good thing—that’s a whole different question. What I’m saying is that they’re not going to be attributed to the church, thus risking its tax exemption. Moreover, they shouldn’t be attributed to the church.)

Now, there is one difference, perhaps, between the civic process specialist and the others: the civic process specialist was asked specifically to talk about political engagement. I sincerely doubt that raises her to the level of official speaker for the church, but let’s assume it does. Can the church protect itself?

If I were advising the church, I’d recommend it do a couple things. First, I’d recommend it provide training that lays out in big letters that the specialists are not to endorse or oppose candidates while they’re doing their calling. Second, I’d publicize that to the church at large, and not merely with a general statement about political neutrality. I would expressly say something to the effect of, “Civic process specialists have been called to help ward members engage in the political process. They have not been called to recommend who or what you vote for—you need to make those decisions yourself, following your own values, conscience, and inspiration.” Finally, the church should produce (and provide the specialists with) handouts, pamphlets, and maybe websites (like, where you can enter your address and find out where you vote) that are expressly nonpartisan. With those three steps, the church would make clear that the specialists don’t speak for the church if they’re endorsing candidates or otherwise recommending what to vote for.

Again, to be clear, I don’t think that the specialists’ statements will be attributed to the church if it doesn’t do these things; if the church is worried, though, these moves would work to ensure that it was absolutely and 100% clear that the specialists are merely there to help with the process of civic engagement, and not with the substance.

Comments

  1. I’ve rewritten this comment a few times, and bottom line – I approve of any program that tries to draw in more moderate voices and break the hold that people at the poles have on the nomination process… It’s a cancer when *everything in public life* turns into a political proxy war.

    I’m not a Utah resident, and I understand that this a Utah-specific program, but as I have 2 children attending colleges in the State of Utah, I’m an interested observer.

    Our local stakes have had GOTV drives and local stake leaders have emphasized voting and registration and LOCAL involvement, for as long as we’ve lived here. We have stake members who are very involved in politics – major donors and fundraisers and proxies for Romney, Obama, HRC, Trump, and Beto in recent years – our stake leadership has tried very hard to get people to understand that politics and religion don’t mix, and we push back on members who attempt to tie political views to religious membership and activity levels. Leaders *actively* push back on talks and lessons with political content. We have a high councilor who is one of the city managers over a city in the stake, and he has done excellent work to bring members to interfaith and interpartisan meetings. One of America’s most virulent conservative talk show hosts lives in my stake, and the stake has taken active measures to minimize his social impact at church. This kind of “anti-partisan activism” needs to continue…

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, queuno!

  3. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Rather than focusing on Civic Process, I would love for the Church to have Civic Engagement Specialists. They could absolutely help with participating in election- related activities, but could also assist with connecting members with community activities such as volunteering in areas a member is passionate about, supporting local initiatives, or participating in other civic activities. Not as part of outreach efforts (or missionary- minded goals), but simply to facilitate member participation in their communities. We don’t teach this well, and many church members don’t know how to serve outside their Ward/Stake structures.

  4. Jack Hughes says:

    On one hand, I welcome this program as an effort to counter the widespread voter apathy in Utah that gave rise to Tea Partiers like Mike Lee and other candidates with extreme views. My mother-in-law, a lifelong Utah Democrat, doesn’t even vote in most elections anymore, as she often laments “what’s the point anymore?”.

    On the other hand, I’m automatically suspicious of any efforts the Church makes to meddle in politics. I was in California during Prop 8, and I witnessed firsthand the damage done by our involvement with that initiative. The idea of the Church having paid lobbyists and always getting their way in the Utah legislature bothers me, as does the fact that this is a Utah-only program (don’t we who live outside the mountain time zone deserve some healthy non-partisan engagement too?).

  5. Hobbes the Cat says:

    Turtle,

    The Church already has a Civic Outreach program: justserve.org. Probably not as good as having a dedicated, local individual, but still a way to connect Church members with community service opportunities.

  6. I am concerned about the fact that just because someone is “legally” speaking as themselves does not mean that those whom they help will realize that. I foresee the inevitable “I voted for *candidate/proposition* because the church told me to” coming from someone. This person may not understand that the civic process specialist is not speaking on behalf of the church, especially if that person is assisting them in registering to vote and showing them how, when, and where to vote. Even if the church makes it 100% clear that they are not telling people who to vote for or promoting any one particular candidate, there will still be people who don’t understand and will insist that the church told them to do it.

  7. Perma Banned says:

    It’s so dumb to even bring up this subject of the church losing its tax exempt status, given that a number of churches are TRYING to lose their tax exemption year after year in order to challenge the entire premise, yet the IRS never takes them on and gives them a pass.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.