Group warns Imams of pitfalls in endorsing specific candidates

SAN FRANCISCO – Amidst bumper stickers galore supporting candidate X and catchy slogans on pins that are likely to sway your vote, it is hard not to be bombarded with exciting endorsements. Election season is officially here and with the thrill of voting just around the corner, many would be surprised to learn that endorsing the candidate of choice may be fine for the average Bilal, but not so much for the average Imam.

Muslim legal experts have thus been working towards educating American Muslim public charities and mosques about permissible and prohibited activities in endorsing candidates and issues. Muslim Advocates, in partnership with Alliance for Justice, have released an election advisory with regard to activities involving political engagements by the American Muslim community.

Muslim Advocates is a national educational Muslim advocacy organization based in San Francisco. Founded by a group of experienced American Muslim lawyers and policy experts, it aims to address some of the most pressing civil rights and policy challenges facing our nation today. Their mission is to use legal advocacy, policy engagement and education to promote and protect equality, liberty, and justice for all regardless of faith.

Muslim Advocates recently held a series of national conference calls that informed officials from mosques and other 501(c)(3) organizations aboutIRS limitations on election activity.

Akil Vohra, an attorney for Muslim Advocates, is the director for the Muslim Charity Works Campaign, which focuses on assisting nonprofit organizations with legal, financial and good governance standards.

“We wanted to inform our community that we should be involved, but there are clear limitations on what types of activities 501(c)(3)s can engage in,” said Vohra.

According to Vohra, a mosque or other 501(c)(3) non-profit can do the following:

  1. Educate the public about candidates’ views through forums, training sessions and discussions
  2. Educate candidates about issues
  3. Encourage individuals to vote
  4. Engage in other nonpartisan activities such as preparing voter guides, sponsoring candidate debates, surveying public opinions and holding focus groups that address issues of concern.

A mosque or other 501(c)(3) non-profit cannot:

  1. Endorse candidates for public office
  2. Make expenditures on behalf of candidates
  3. Make any campaign contributions or sponsor fundraising events for candidates
  4. Ask candidates to sign a pledge in support of a position on any issue
  5. Increase the volume or amount of criticism of an incumbent running for re-election as election time approaches
  6. Publish or communicate anything that explicitly or implicitly favors or opposes a candidate (forms of communication include: khutbas [sermons], list serves and newsletters)

501(c)(3)s are designated by the IRS to receive a government subsidy in the form of a tax deduction on donations, which donors can also benefit from. If partisan related activities that support or oppose candidates for public office are initiated, however, the 501(c)(3) could lose this tax-exempt status and/or may have to face taxes on its political activity.

Though organizations directly affiliated with the mosque cannot take part in endorsement practices as well, Vohra emphasized the need to, instead, organize nonpartisan “get-out-the-vote” efforts, which are just as important. In addition, organizations can arrange for candidates to make appearances to address an audience so long as an equal opportunity is given to all other candidates on a nonpartisan basis.

“Muslim Advocates wants to ensure that mosques and other American Muslim public charities are not engaging in any prohibited activity,” said Vohra. “Hopefully this will be an effective way to gage the public’s involvement in the election process without jeopardizing their nonprofit status.”

Muslim community leaders are highly encouraged to consult legal experts with additional queries about the do’s and don’ts of election activities by contacting Muslim Advocates at [email protected].

Southern California InFocus