Matters of church and the state are traditionally separated in the United States, but not always. There is a current push by some conservative Christians in Hawaii to urge pastors to speak out from the pulpit in support of gubernatorial hopeful James “Duke” Aiona and other so-called “family values” Republican candidates.
In my childhood, I can’t remember any priest at our neighborhood church, Star of the Sea in Kahala, promoting political candidates during a mass. If a priest tried to get the adults to vote for a particular candidate, I am certain my mother would have been angry. She was A rebellious Irish-American, who didn’t like to be told by anyone what to do.
Chapel was also politically neutral at my high school. My daughter’s chaplain at the same high school, John Heidel, recently headed Interfaith Alliance Hawaii, an organization based on clarifying the issue of the separation of church and state.
Heidel says, “Religions and religious people need to speak out and make their views known to inform government leaders about issues affecting the state, but they should not endorse any political candidates during election seasons.”
Churches and charities with 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt status are allowed under the Internal Revenue Code to launch voter education and voter registration and turnout activities but not to support the election or defeat of particular candidates “in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.”
If a tax-exempt organization violates these prohibitions, it risks losing its tax-exempt status.
But in spite of possible penalties, some nonprofits today want churches to speak out in favor of political candidates they believe share their conservative Christian beliefs.
Garret Hashimoto, the chairman of the Hawaii Christian Coalition, believes pastors may express support from the pulpit for particular candidates — if a pastor makes it clear he is speaking as an individual rather than speaking for the church.
Hashimoto is not an attorney but passionate about the right of church officials to speak their minds.
Hashimoto says “Just because you are a pastor, it doesn’t make you give up your rights as a citizen.”
Deputy Attorney General Hugh Jones disagrees with that. Jones supervises the tax and charities division of the state Attorney General’s office, which oversees tax-exempt organizations.
“Even if a pastor says he is supporting a candidate as an individual, the sentiments are going to be attributed to the church if the remarks are made from the pulpit,” Jones says.
Hashimoto of the Hawaii Christian Coalition organized a Pastors’ Luncheon Friday hosted by Pastors Joshua and Shannon Marocco of the King’s Chapel-East Oahu in the Niu Valley Shopping Center.
Hashimoto invited the media to attend. I was the only reporter there.
Hashimoto has been organizing pastors’ luncheons since 1998, when his organization began fighting legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Hawaii.
In spite of possible penalties, some nonprofits today want churches to speak out in favor of political candidates they believe share their conservative Christian beliefs.
Hashimoto told me one of his goals at the luncheons is to get the word out to pastors that they can be politically active even when they are speaking from the pulpit.
“Some pastors don’t know. They think they have to remain silent,” he says.
Steven Melendrez of the King’s Chapel- East Oahu says the church invited all of Hawaii’s registered political candidates to Friday’s Pastors’ Luncheon. About 30 candidates — all Republicans — showed up, including Republican congressional candidate Charles Djou and GOP gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona.
The issue of churches openly endorsing particular candidates was discussed socially by some attendees before lunch but it was not brought up during the formal program by speakers at the church’s podium.
UPDATE: In an email after the lunch, Aiona said, “I did not ask or encourage any pastor to support my candidacy from the pulpit. I can only assume that pastors know what the parameters are in regards to their political activity as a pastor.”
Jim Hochberg, president of Hawaii Family Advocates, also believes in direct minister involvement.
“Under the First Amendment, a pastor can say whatever he wants from the pulpit,” says Hochberg. “What role can a government properly have telling a minister what he can and can’t say?”
Hochberg is a Honolulu attorney allied with the Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, Arizona, an organization trying to generate test cases to challenge the constitutionality of restricting pastors from speaking from the pulpit for or against particular candidates or ballot initiatives.
“There are zero cases because the IRS has not made a case so far,” says Hochberg.
Hochberg says hundreds of pastors across the country speak openly in favor of particular politicians or ballot initiatives during their church services each year at an event called Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
In 2012, five Hawaii churches participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday including Calvary Chapel Windward in Kailua and Kaimuki Christian Church in Honolulu. Their pastors spoke about limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
The Alliance Defending Freedom is hoping the IRS will take the participating churches to court to generate a test case but so far it has not.
“I would love to bring a case to the Supreme Court to get a definitive answer,” says Hochberg.
Hochberg was at the pastors’ luncheon Friday. His Hawaii Family Advocates, a non-tax-deductible 501 (c) 4 organization, is supporting conservative candidates. It is an affiliate of the Hawaii Family Forum, which is running a voter education and registration program on behalf of “pro family” candidates.
Hawaii Family Forum is helping non-voters register in its iVote Hawaii program, including the thousands of religious conservatives who turned out at the special legislative session to oppose the same-sex marriage bill. A computer check of their names against state voter registration lists found that 70 percent of them had not registered to vote.
iVote Hawaii is working to get these committed religious citizens on the voter rolls before Hawaii’s primary election three weeks from now.
Next week, I will have more from Duke Aiona on the value of the Christian conservative vote, and why Aiona’s quest to become governor will be different this year, even though players Mufi Hannemann and Neil Abercrombie are the same.