As the race for the White House heats up, churches are falling under the glare of the IRS and religious advocacy groups looking to ensure they do not engage in illegal church electioneering.
"It's open season on religious leaders," said Kim Baldwin, director of public policy and voter education at the Washington D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance. "If you're a religious leader in this election season, I would put a flak jacket on and go hide, because they're coming to get you."
According to Baldwin, leaders of churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of faith should be conscious about the tax code to prevent risking their organization's tax-exempt status by endorsing or opposing presidential runners.
It is vital that seminaries, for example, prepare students and future clergy to uphold the legal responsibilities that come with leading a nonprofit organization, such as a house of worship, Baldwin said.
Baldwin said her organization and the IRS use various forms of outreach to educate clergy, including those who haven't attended seminary, about the tax laws. Each election season, for instance, the Interfaith Alliance and the IRS distribute guides that detail the tax codes and rules for religious groups.
One of Interfaith Alliance's round table discussions with clergy members found that many were afraid of civic involvement, Baldwin said.
"One of the things that really bothered me was talking to these religious leaders and seeing how scared they were to engage in the civic process, which is so fundamental to being a religious leader," she said. "They were completely opting out of the process."
So for the 2008 election, Interfaith Alliance will distribute a video via mail and the Internet that teaches clergy, through detailed explanations of the tax codes as well as footage of religious leaders discussing the subject, how to be lawfully involved in politics.
This becomes all the more necessary as more and more campaigns are taking on religious outreach workers to unabashedly hold their hand out to the faithful and ask clergy for their support.
Still, Baldwin said, those guides can only do so much.
As an example, religious leaders should already have a firm understanding of the tax laws so that they can lawfully participate in various forms of political activity, Baldwin said. It is especially important this election cycle, in her view, as the competition for the presidency seems to be intensifying.
Just as important, faith is being invoked in this election as in few before it, making it perhaps all the more tempting for faith leaders to instruct or hint to their congregations that they should follow a particular candidate.
Chicago's Catholic Theological Union offers a course entitled "Religion and the Shaping of Public Ethical Values," which focuses on the church's influence on society. The Rev. John Pawlikowski, who teaches the course, said he tries to broach the tax exemption topic with students during and outside of class.
CTU has a very international student body, Pawlikowski said. As a result, he added, he makes an effort to educate his students about the various implications that could arise from discussing politics in a religious setting.
"Some of our students will be going to situations where raising any kind of political issue can get you not only legally in trouble, but also physically in trouble if it's a dictatorship, for instance." he said, noting that priests in some orders perform missionary duties around the world.
According to Corwin Smidt, executive director of The Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., seminaries play an important role in shaping the way a religious leader preaches to congregants.
One of his studies found that denominations that select clergy based on their sacramental gifts rather than seminary education are likely to have clergy who step over the line.
"In those denominations, the percentage of clergy who report having endorsed someone from the pulpit tends to be much higher than denominations that select clergy based on theological training," Smidt said.
Still, most seminaries do not have in-depth teachings on legal regulations for houses of worship. In some cases, he said, seminaries-regardless of the denomination-might touch on the illegalities of promoting candidates from the pulpit, but only as a small part of a larger course.
"There may be teachings related to what's appropriate, not necessarily in terms of law but in terms of preaching from the pulpit." However, Smidt said, it would be unusual for a seminary to devote an entire course to legal issues concerning churches because many seminary professors do not have extensive backgrounds in law.
Farid De La Ossa Arrieta, 32, who earned a master of divinity from CTU last year, said he and his classmates were not required to take Pawlikowski's "Public Ethical Values" class. So even though his education focused on the priesthood, it did not expose De La Ossa, who has taken a leave of absence from his Catholic community, to the possible legal ramifications of politicking from the pulpit.
"There was a lot of teaching on ethics, but not on politics itself," De La Ossa said. "There were some students who wanted to focus on church and state matters, so they took Pawlikowski's course. But it wasn't one of the main classes that we had to take."
Similarly, the Rev. David Oldham, pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Rulo, Neb., said the courses he took while at seminary did not directly examine the legal policies surrounding churches. Instead, Oldham, 32, who graduated from Mount Saint Mary's Seminary ordination program in 2003, became aware of the risks of discussing politics in church through his conversations with fellow seminarians.
Oldham said he also recalls that his professors stated the importance of deliberating over social and political issues in church, but they never went into detail about the consequences of politicking.
"We do feel like we can talk about issues because they affect our everyday lives," he said. "We were told that we can discuss issues, but we shouldn't get into, as far as preaching, talking about specific candidates."
His seminary education concentrated mostly on the spiritual and theological aspects of becoming a priest. But Oldham said other priests in his diocese and his bishop often educate him about the legal duties. Oldham added that when he discusses moral issues during Mass, he does not feel tempted to mention candidates.
"I don't go up to the pulpit with a political frame of mind," Oldham said. "I try to really pull from the Gospel and really speak about what Christ is speaking about. You try to bring His teachings to the modern day, but you don't have to go into political specifics."
Yet, said Baldwin of Interfaith Alliance, many priests are breaking the law by endorsing candidates and thus risking their church's tax-exempt status. In the last six months, several watchdog groups have reported a number of houses of worship to the IRS for electioneering.
For instance in May, Americans United for Separation of Church and State asked the IRS to investigate Bill Keller Ministries after its director, Bill Keller, argued on his group's Web site that a vote for Mitt Romney is the equivalent to a vote for Satan.
Baldwin said seminaries must be an integral part of informing clergy about these laws to ensure that church doors remain open and congregants fill the pews.
"I have spoken to so many people who are so frustrated when they go to their house of worship because it's so political," Baldwin said. "The tax codes are about protecting the integrity of religion and the sanctity of the house of worship."