Ask ELI: Are Churches Allowed to Put Up Political Signs?

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Dustin DuFort Petty for ELi

A sign outside All Saints Episcopal Church on Abbot Road in East Lansing encouraging people to vote.

Editor’s note: Tuesday, Nov. 8, is Election Day, and the ballot includes the East Lansing School Board and Public Library. Don’t forget that ELi has a nonpartisan General Election Guide to help you be informed.

East Lansing Info runs a journalism service for our readers called Ask ELi to Investigate. Today we look into a question posed to us by a reader who used the subject line “Large sign in front of St. Thomas Aquinas church” and wrote: “They have just installed a gigantic political sign urging a no vote on Proposal 3. As a tax exempt organization, are they allowed to do this?”

With Election Day coming tomorrow, Michigan residents have now been subjected to months of political advertisements, mailings and social media postings. And, as our reader points out, some local residents are also hearing about state ballot initiatives from their faith communities.

Traveling past St. Thomas Aquinas Parish at 955 Alton Rd., drivers will see the large sign to which the reader refers, encouraging people to vote no on Proposal 3, described by the sign as “Too Confusing” and “Too Extreme.”

Proposal 3 is titled as, “A proposal to amend the state constitution to establish new individual right to reproductive freedom, including right to make all decisions about pregnancy and abortion; allow state to regulate abortion in some cases; and forbid prosecution of individuals exercising established right.” ELi’s nonpartisan voter guide more about the content of the proposal.

Some background on St. Thomas’ sign:

Father Gordon Reigle has served as pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and the St. John Church and Student Center in East Lansing for four years. He recounted for ELi the origins of the Diocese of Lansing’s advocating against Proposal 3. 

“When the Dobbs decision [from the U.S. Surpreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade] leaked in April,” Reigle said, “our governor said she was going to fight like hell for abortion rights in Michigan. So our Bishop in Lansing, Bishop [Earl] Boyea, responded in kind by saying, ‘Let’s fight like heaven.’”

Father Reigle has been a leading voice in the diocese. He led members in the area in a 54-day Rosary Novena, a time of prayer leading up to Election Day that both petitions God for help and offers thanks to God.

The “No on Prop 3” outside East Lansing’s St. Thomas Church. (Dustin DuFort Petty for ELi)

Reigle argues this isn’t just a continuation of Roe.

“This [ballot proposal] was written by the ACLU and Planned Parenthood,” he said. “This is a free-for-all for the abortion industry. This is a little bit more than what it’s being billed as.”

“It doesn’t require divine revelation to see that we have skin in this game. The church does speak out on issues all the time. We don’t pick candidates, we don’t pick parties.”

And that approach–weighing in on ballot measures–is allowed for nonprofit religious organizations under federal law.

The 1954 Johnson Amendment, championed by then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, forbids all registered nonprofit organizations–including churches and houses of worship–from endorsing and opposing political candidates. The law does, however, allow organizations to speak out on issues, including ballot proposals.

Just to be clear, not all religious people in East Lansing see Prop 3 as something to vote against.

Thasin Sardar serves on the Board of Trustees at the Islamic Center of East Lansing. He told ELi the center has not advised its members how to vote, but he is using his faith as a personal guide.

“At the Islamic Center of East Lansing we promote civic engagement by encouraging people to register and to vote,” he said. “While there is no formal endorsement of the proposals, I have been advocating on them in my personal capacity. In accordance with my faith, I am pro-life and the widely held opinion is against abortion.

“At the same time,” Sardar said, “Islam places equal emphasis on the life of the mother. If a mother’s life and well being is at risk, Islam permits abortion. It is thus not the place for the State to dictate whether or not a woman can make the choice. It should be decided between her and her physician, and her clergy if she seeks spiritual guidance on the matter. So I have been advocating Yes on Prop 3 in my faith community so that women’s rights are protected.”

Meanwhile, All Saints Episcopal Church on Abbot Road has changed its marquee sign to say this: “We won’t tell you how to vote…just vote!!”

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