“Many of our pastors have been led to believe that the IRS is sitting across the street with bonoculars watching everything that is going on in the church. That is indeed not the case,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) as he spoke to faith leaders in Washington.
The core question of a summit on voter education and registration by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of National Black Churches was the specific issue of how churches may lawfully be involved in the the political process. An unprecedented number of changes in laws related to voting, since the election of President Obama, are seen by many as an attempt to suppress minority voters.
Reps. Butterfield and Bobby Scott (D-VA) instructed ministers on how they may or may not engage in political matters. Butterfield, a former Judge on the North Carolina State Supreme Court, instructed faith leaders in detail on how churches should engage in politics, voter registration and interactions with elected officials and candidates for office.
“There can be some degree of activity in your church that surrounds the political process — it can not be partisan,” Butterfield told a room of about 150 ministers and faith leaders from across the country. “I want to encourage you to get involved in non partisan voter registration,” Butterfield said. “Non partisan,” he repeated.
“Send your people out in the community and knock on doors and go to the street corners and encourage people to register to vote. Don’t tell them to vote as a Democrat or as a Republican or any other political party. Encourage them to exercise their right to vote,” Butterfield said, adding, “on election day get out and encourage people to vote — but in a non partisan way.”
Butterfield’s information focused on the central point of the gathering between the Conference of National Black Churches and the CBC and was the main reason for the summit. As the CBC tries to engage ministers who are at the grassroots of the Black community, much of the emphasis of the summit went to informing pastors how to be involved in voter registration without violating the law.
Some church leaders have been reluctant to risk jeopardizing their tax exempt status and have chosen to refrain from anything political. IRS Chief Doug Shulman and veteran IRS employee Peter Lorenzetti conducted presentations in general and specific terms to the ministers. But it was Butterfield who provided vivid day-to-day examples that made many ministers in the room nod their heads with familiarity and agreement.
“It’s unwise for a candidate to stand in front of a congregation and say ‘vote for me.’ It is unwise and probably unlawful for a candidate to stand in front of a church and say vote for me,” Butterfield said. “I would encourage you not to allow a political candidate to distribute political material on the property of the church,” Butterfield instructed.
Butterfield referred to the PEW Forum’s Politics and the Pulpit IRS guide for some of the information he presented to the group.
The CBC is encouraging faith leaders to to take up offerings for members in their congregation who cannot afford to pay for a valid government issued ID so they may vote during the month of August. In September pastors will be encouraged to ensure members of their congregation are registered to vote. This will be in partnership with other organizations and in October they will be encouraged to inform congregations to vote early and provide basic information on polling place locations.
“You have some very intelligent members of your church and what they need is accurate information,” Butterfield concluded. In addition to the CBC’s efforts, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Action Network and Obama 2012 are also undertaking voter education and registration efforts.
LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE, Politic365 Chief Congressional Correspondent, publishes the blog Crewof42 on the Congressional Black Caucus. She is heard every Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET on WMCS 1290 in Milwaukee on Earl Ingram’s show The Evening Rush as well as on WPFW every Friday at 6:30 p.m. in Washington DC. You can e-mail her at LBurke007@gmail.com follow her on twitter at @crewof42.