Virginia Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli spoke at a breakfast Thursday morning for pastors in the Fredericksburg area, providing guidance on how ministers can be involved in politics without jeopardizing the tax-exempt status of their churches.
Event organizers--the Virginia Christian Alliance and the Fredericksburg Christian Schools--said before the breakfast that they expected 300 attendees at the ”Christian Citizenship and Godly Government.”
According to prepared remarks provided by Cuccinelli’s office, the attorney general encouraged the ministers to be involved, but said there are some limitations placed on their churches’ activities by the Internal Revenue Service.
For instance, Cuccinelli (R) said pastors can personally endorse candidates, but not on behalf of their churches. They can distribute voter’s guides that outline positions of candidates on issues but those guides cannot specify whether individual candidates’ views are consistent with church teachings. They can rent their mailing lists to candidates, at market value, and they can allow candidates to use their facilities, provided they are charged fees if other civic groups are as well.
Candidates can be invited to address congregations, as long as rivals in contested races are given equal opportunities to speak, he said.
“Whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian or an independent, your becoming a pastor didn’t negate your right to participate in political conversation,” Cuccinelli told the group, according to his prepared remarks.
“When you became a pastor, you didn’t leave your First Amendment rights at the door,” he said. “Continue to be good shepherds to your congregations – and don’t be afraid when your shepherding includes giving guidance on issues that fall in the political world, because those are the same issues your congregants face each day in their world. Let your voice be heard. Speak out and guide your flock toward what is right and what is true.”
Cuccinelli has long advocated for religious leaders to be involved in the politics and accuses liberals of misinterpreting the constitution to edge religion out of public life.
The event suggests Cuccinelli may be looking to harness the energy of Christian ministers and churches as he works to build a statewide grassroots network of political support. That effort appears to include a particular outreach to African-American ministers, the intended guests of Thursday’s event.
Though black pastors traditionally have largely supported Democrats, many hold socially conservative positions that have led Republicans to reach out in recent years. Another speaker at the breakfast was Bishop Harry Jackson, a well known conservative black minister from Maryland who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage..
According to a Web site for the groups, Cuccinelli’s “Pastors, Pulpit and the Law” lecture would outline “what churches and pastors can do in regards to politics, political candidates and lobbying; what is legal and what the limitations are.”
They went on to write, “Pro-choice groups and other activist people and organizations want to silence pastors and organizations with misinformation regarding church and state issues, tax status and other under-handed practices to keep the pulpits silent. Please come and listen to our attorney general, so we can be a voice to our people.”
In an e-mail, Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein said Cuccinelli’s speech was not designed to dispense legal advice.
“He cannot give legal advice to anyone other than his government clients,” Gottstein said. “He will speak in general about the issues of what churches and pastors can do in regards to politics, political candidates, and lobbying.”
The Fredericksburg area will see one of the fall’s most hotly contested state Senate races, as Sen. Edd Houck (D) is challenged by Republican businessman Bryce Reeves.