Two conservative legal groups are offering free advice to church leaders this election season to combat what they say is an effort to squelch churches from speaking out on moral issues and political candidates.
"The best defense is to know your rights," said James Bopp Jr., general counsel for the James Madison Center for Free Speech, which teamed up with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) to handle church leaders' questions and concerns about what they legally can do regarding political involvement.
Under a 1954 law, churches and other tax-exempt organizations can lose that status if they engage in overt political activities such as endorsing or opposing candidates.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other groups have filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) accusing some churches of violating the law by being too political.
But Mr. Bopp said the atmosphere has become so tense lately that some pastors and churches are avoiding clearly allowable activities. For example, one church asked whether an incumbent congressman could come speak at their church. Mr. Bopp said of course he can, as long as the church doesn't endorse him.
Another question churches consistently have asked the two groups is whether they can speak from the pulpit in favor of the federal marriage amendment -- or state ballot initiatives designed to protect traditional marriage.
"We've consistently told them, 'First off, don't be afraid, don't be silent. If you feel compelled to speak on the topic of marriage, go ahead and speak,'" said Gary McCaleb, senior counsel for the ADF. Pastors have the right to endorse these marriage efforts from the pulpit, he said.
The James Madison Center has posted a guideline for pastors on its Web site, jamesmadisoncenter.org, that includes a checklist of what is permissible and not permissible under the law for both churches and pastors.
For example, a church can discuss the political positions of candidates on issues, such as abortion, but they cannot endorse or oppose a candidate. A church can distribute candidate voter guides and voting records to congregants, but can't distribute campaign literature. Political material may be distributed in the church parking lot, and church buildings can be rented to political candidates for fair-market value.
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the guide is a "pretty good summary" of the law, but he warned that the checklist is too vague and "could get people in trouble."
He gave a general rule for churches: "If you intend to influence an election by what you're doing, then don't do it."
Americans United has filed several complaints against churches this year, including one against the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Evangelical conservative churches say they are the main target of this effort, but Americans United insists that it goes after churches that lean toward Democrats as well as conservative evangelical churches.
Its latest IRS complaint was against the New Birth Baptist Church in Miami, which hosted an Aug. 29 rally that featured speeches by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAulliffe and former Democratic presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Mr. McCaleb said he hopes that these efforts will help all churches, both liberal and conservative.
"Churches should be free to speak their heart, mind and faith on these issues," he said. "Opponents should not be allowed to terrify these poor churches into silence. That's not the American way."