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Good Question: Are Churches Allowed To Say 'Vote Yes' Or 'Vote No'?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Most of us would have a problem with our preacher telling us who to vote for. That's why the advocacy for or against a constitutional amendment, which would define marriage as only between a man and woman, has gained so much attention.

"What about separation of Church and State? Doesn't the Church risk losing its tax-exempt status by getting involved in politics like this?" emailed Mariska from St. Paul.

"What does Minnesota law say about the rights of an organization claiming tax exemption inserting itself into a clearly high-charged political and secular matter?" asked Mike Essen from Hopkins.

"If a church posts a political sign endorsing or opposing a political candidate they are in violation of their tax exempt status. What if they post a sign either for or against the proposed marriage amendment?" wrote Kristen Ryan from Minneapolis.

"These really are some of the big issues in society, the fact that institutions have an opinion is not surprising, and, in fact, it's entirely allowed," said Susie Brown, public policy director at Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. The council helps educate and train nonprofits about the laws that would govern their tax-exempt status.

"We, as 501 (c) (3) nonprofits have a deal with the federal government," Brown said.

The deal is that nonprofits, including churches, are not allowed to take part in "political campaign activity." That's complex to define precisely, but the IRS sets up guidelines that prohibit nonprofits from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns for candidates or parties.

"Although the candidates and amendments are on the same ballot, they are different issues under the law. Ballot measure questions are issues similar to any other public policy question," Brown said.

The IRS allows churches to preach on the issues of the day, and they're allowed to lobby on behalf of issues as well. They can puts signs up on church grounds and preach from the pulpit, without jeopardizing their nonprofit status.

"Institutions in the community, whether churches or nonprofits, have principles and values and a vision, and talking about policy positions in a way that's aligned with that makes good sense," Brown said.

So churches cannot post a "Vote for Obama" or "Vote For Romney" sign, but "Vote Yes" and "Vote No" signs are perfectly OK.

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