Hawaii attorney general Russell Suzuki is being scolded by an internationally renowned legal team for issuing a press release that appears to be an attempt to intimidate churches into silence during the coming election season.

“Houses of worship need not be silent during elections out of a misplaced fear that simply participating in the life of their communities and their state, they will somehow run afoul of federal tax law,” says the letter from the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“Your vague and misleading ‘guidance’ is nothing more than an attempt to use federal tax law to silence the voice of houses of worship. It is not the province of the attorney general for the state of Hawaii to act as an IRS agent seeking to enforce federal tax law. Nor is it your within your duties as attorney general to opine on the meaning and application of federal tax law, and certainly not in such a one-sided manner that attempts to intimidate houses of worship and religious leaders in Hawaii.”

Suzuki’s guidance stated that “tax-exempt charitable organizations should know that they do not share the same legal rights to participate in political activity as individuals and other corporations.”

Explaining they cannot endorse candidates, or oppose them, he warned, “If a charitable organization violates this prohibition, the IRS may revoke the organization’s valuable tax-exempt status. The members of a charitable organization’s governing body may also be in breach of their fiduciary duties to the organization if they allow the organization’s assets to be used for any prohibited political intervention rather than for charitable purposes.”

It is important, he said, for charitable groups and their leaders “to avoid crossing the line.”

Warns the ADF letter back to Suzuki:

“The release is troubling because it overstates the law in an area where you have no enforcement authority. The release is clearly an intimidation tactic leveled at Hawaii’s houses of worship to frighten them into silence on the upcoming elections for political office.”

It continued, “The fact that you released guidance on a law you have no authority or ability to enforce leads to the conclusion that the ‘guidance’ was nothing more than a tactic to intimidate houses of worship from speaking during this election season.”

What churches can do, the ADF notes, is to discuss issues of public importance, discuss candidates’ positions, hold candidate forums, distribute non-partisan voter guides, urge congregations to vote and rent out facilities to candidates on the same terms as any other public group.

“Additionally, religious leaders do no surrender their First Amendment freedoms by entering the pastorate. Acting individually, they enjoy the same right to speak as any other citizen,” the ADF said.

Further, ADF believes a religious leader can speak, under the Constitution, freely from their pulpits without fearing government intimidation.

In fact, it has promised to defend, without charge, any pastor or church leader who is “threatened or punished for something that is said from the pulpit during a church service.”

The ADF said, “Church services are the province only of the church and no government official, state or federal, has the right to intrude … and censor religious speech.”

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