Church Parking Lots

 

Fr. Frank Pavone

 
  2/23/2004
   With primaries taking place in various parts of the nation and the general election fast approaching, many pastors are approached by people who wish to distribute campaign literature in the Church parking lot, or who simply do it on their own.

These are people who have heard the call of the Church to get involved in transforming society! They have understood what the Second Vatican Council meant by the "apostolate of the laity" and their special call to be in the world as witnesses to Christ. They have learned what the Church teaches about the tragic separation of faith and life that leads many to worship in a corner but leave the world unchanged.

So they pay attention to elections. They find out who is running, and make a decision in conscience about who is the best person to exercise public office in a way that will advance God's Kingdom of justice, life, and peace. And now they take a practical step and attempt to inform their fellow-believers by handing out literature at the place where they are most likely to find them.

Then what happens? Often, they get thrown off the property! The very pastors who are ordained to stir up their gifts to get involved in changing the world now punish them for exercising those gifts!

There is no reason to throw such people off the property simply for putting literature on cars. Among the attorneys who advise us at Priests for Life are James Bopp, Jr. and Barry Bostrom, who are among the nation's leading experts on tax law and on what Churches are allowed to do regarding elections. In a recent letter, they advised us as follows:

"…[T]he distribution of campaign material by others in the church parking lot will not jeopardize the church's tax exempt status. The mere permission of distribution of campaign materials by others in the church parking lot is not regulated by the Internal Revenue Code. The Code and its regulations are designed to limit only the activities and expenditures of non-profit organizations. Distribution of campaign materials by others outdoors, in a public parking lot, is not an activity or expenditure of the church…

"…[I]n most states there are state court decisions holding that such activity is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and/or the State Constitution, and therefore, the church will suffer no adverse consequences as a result of this activity. There are many cases recognizing the free speech rights of individuals and protecting speech and petitioning, reasonably exercised, in public areas, even when the property is privately owned…

"In other words, churches not only may permit campaign statements to be distributed in their public parking lots, they cannot prohibit such distributions because the parking lots are open to the public."

I am grateful for this expert guidance.

Wouldn't it be great if we stopped worrying about what might happen if we do something, and started worrying about what might happen if we do nothing?