An Election Day request puzzled Jim Frederick.
As a member of the Chippewa Dems, he stationed himself Tuesday at the Chippewa United Methodist Church’s Community Life Center, working on behalf of the Democratic Party.
Campaign signs representing his party’s candidates dotted the grassy area 10 feet from the center — a longstanding rule based on the Johnson Amendment for nonprofit voter precincts. Just like prior years, Frederick thought it was business as usual — until he was told he had to remove the signs.
Apparently, the 10-foot separation between church and state collided Tuesday.
And Frederick wasn’t the only one told to remove political signs near a nonprofit locale. Election officials at other Beaver County precincts were informing political party representatives the same thing: The signs got to go.
But does the separation of church and state permit political signs at nonprofit voter precincts?
The short answer is yes; the long answer is more complex.
The end result was a county of confusion Tuesday regarding whether nonprofit voter precincts can have political signs on their property. At least four area churches asked campaign volunteers to remove their political signs — even those abiding by the election bureau’s required 10-foot distance from the polling location.
‘Normally it’s not a problem’
Several campaigners said political signs were always permitted at previous elections.
“It’s frustrating,” Frederick said. “We’ve been trying to follow the rules.”
The rules are inconsistent, according to Frederick and other volunteers representing various campaigns in the county.
“Let’s have a consistent rule that follows the state law instead of an arbitrary decision by some combination of the church and the judge of elections,” Frederick said.
The Rev. Allen Brooks, pastor at Chippewa United Methodist Church, said the church’s policy regarding political signs has not changed. In fact, Brooks said this year they were a little more lenient, as they didn’t have the signs removed until 3 p.m. Tuesday.
In the past, Brooks said if he sees political signs on church property, he informs the election officials who then move them.
Mark Hoenig, a Chippewa Dems volunteer, said political signs on the church’s property were never an issue in previous years.
The group also had to remove an innocuous sign at Pathway Church that said: “Thank you for voting. Stay Safe & Healthy. From the Chippewa Dems.” However, the sign was allowed to stay up after the group covered up the word “Dems” with tape.
A similar situation also happened at Ashes to Life, a church in Beaver Falls.
Faith Veon, chairwoman of the Beaver Falls Democratic Committee, said she’s worked the polls in the city for years and has never been asked to remove her signs.
“It’s an interesting development this year because normally it’s not a problem,” Veon said.
The Johnson Amendment
The National Council of Nonprofits said the issue is a bit more nuanced.
Rich Cohen, the council’s chief communications and chief operating officer, said a few things depend on whether or not voter precincts at nonprofits can have political signs on their properties.
“It puts two different things together,” he said. “One is what is allowed outside of a voting precinct. The other is a longstanding law known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofits from supporting or opposing a candidate for elected office — from the president all the way down to city council.”
The Johnson Amendment, named after then-Minority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson in 1954, was enacted to ensure a strict separation between church and state. A Republican majority in Congress adopted it without controversy and President Ike Eisenhower signed it into law. President Ronald Reagan strengthened the law in 1987.
It states that nonprofits — in exchange for the “privilege of receiving donations that are tax-deductible to the donors” — they can’t support or oppose candidates for elected office.
According to the National Council of Nonprofits, nonprofit leaders are still allowed to vote, and can even publicly speak out about certain political issues. However, they cannot endorse candidates.
It is an anti-corruption law that protects taxpayers and voters. The amendment shields nonprofit organizations from the “rancor of partisan politics and being harassed by politicians and their operatives seeking endorsements.” Endorsing specific candidates can cause division among congregations and discord between boards and members of nonprofit organizations.
Interestingly, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have tried to gut and repeal the Johnson Amendment, garnering support from evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell Jr. and Pat Robertson. In fact, the Trump Foundation was found in violation of the Johnson Amendment federal tax code by the New York Attorney General.
Nonprofit means no endorsements
Cohen said, nonprofits — which includes churches — that are voter precincts are permitted to have political signs on their properties as long as the nonprofits themselves did not put up the signs.
“Nonprofits can’t take sides in the elections,” Cohen said. “They’re allowed to hold voter forums and host events as long as both candidates have an equal opportunity to attend.”
For nonprofits that are voter precincts, as long as both Democrats and Republicans have equal opportunity to place their partisan signs on the property, “that’s generally OK,” Cohen said.
“If one favors one candidate over another, that’s when you run into an issue,” he said. “If they, for example, had two signs up: one for President Trump and one for Vice President Biden … then the churches can’t get in trouble because they aren’t taking a side.”
The election law side is separate, Cohen said.
In Pennsylvania, campaign signs and materials must be at least 10 feet away from the polling location.
Deputy solicitor Nate Morgan said Beaver County received calls about one church that wasn’t allowing candidates or campaigns to post signs at the polling place. To his understanding the law doesn’t mandate that a polling place must allow signs, he said — just that they can’t allow one candidate to post signs and prohibit another from doing so.
Some nonprofit voter precincts decided the best route to remaining nonpartisan is to not permit any sort of political sign on their premises.
The Rev. Mark Ongley, pastor of Ashes to Life church, decided to not permit political signs at its polling precinct this year. The Beaver Falls precinct, which has some of the largest turnouts in the city, in a previous election had political signs in its yard, but Ongley said it was “only because I didn’t notice them until the day after the election.”
He said he spoke with police on Monday, asking about signage on the church’s property.
“And wanting to make sure the church in no way appeared to be endorsing any candidate, I decided that all signage needed to be located near people who were actually promoting candidates and causes,” Ongley said.
According to Veon, the church asked that she move her signs to the sidewalk area, which is a public space, instead of on church property.
“I don’t really understand why the church would feel like people walking to the polls would think that they have a political opinion when everybody’s represented,” Veon said. “The divisiveness of this election is being felt by our churches. They’re trying to separate themselves as much as they can, but they’re still hosting.”
Ongley said he appreciates the principle of the separation of church and state.
“Looking back on church history, anytime there’s been enmeshment between church and state, things have gone awry,” he said.
Daveen Rae Kurutz contributed to this report.